Democrats might not be the voters who decide the tight Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire.
The state’s nonpartisan independents — at 37.5 percent the largest voting bloc compared with 26 percent Democrats and 36.5 percent Republicans — can cast ballots in party primaries and help sway a close contest.
“I call them the free electrons in the election,” said Dayton Duncan, author of “Grass Roots: One Year in the Life of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary.” “You just don’t know what molecule they will attach themselves to.”
“In a close election, which I think this will be, they could hold the key to victory,” he said.
A record showing by independents, known here as undeclared, propelled maverick Republican John McCain to a big victory over George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000.
The campaigns of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman in particular, experts say, hope to see the same support.
First in a long line of primaries
Seven men are competing in Tuesday’s primary, the nation’s first in a long line of primaries that will determine the Democratic challenger to President Bush.
The thought of defying predictions and shirking labels brings a smile to the faces of many undeclared voters.
“It’s a leave-me-alone attitude,” said Mike Sampo, a businessman from Bow, New Hampshire. “We’re big boys and girls. We’re capable of taking care of ourselves.”
The number of undeclared voters has risen, while Republicans have held steady and Democrats have decreased over the past decade, said Dante Scala, author of “Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics,” who suggested the appeal is one of personal privacy.
“They can vote as they please and do it privately,” he said.
That keeps Charles Ackroyd, a retired teacher from Warner, undeclared. “I wouldn’t want people to know I voted as a Democrat,” he joked. “I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
Just how much clout independents have is a matter of debate among political experts. Scala argued they are overrated.
“Unless they all break one way, they don’t make that much difference,” he said.
Thumbing their noses
Even if the bite of the independents is weaker than their bark, these voters proudly thumb their noses at party labels.
“I’m not going to put myself in a category until I know who I like and exactly what they’re representing, said Monique Ebhaleme, a mother of two from Plaistow who is wavering between Lieberman and Clark.
Gas station attendant Rick Emmert, of North Salem, said he has decided to switch to undeclared from Democrat.
“Sometimes I believe what the Democrats say,” he explained. ”Sometimes I believe what the Republicans say.”
While the Democratic hopefuls hungrily eye a victory, independent-minded New Hampshire voters have backed their share of longshots and losers.
Victors have included Democrat Gary Hart in 1984 and Republican Pat Buchanan in 1996. President Lyndon Johnson bowed out of the race in 1968 after Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly beat him in New Hampshire, and George McGovern’s strong showing in 1972 helped propel him to the Democratic nomination.
“New Hampshire has a much more independent, contrarian and libertarian streak than most other states,” said Duncan, “and the largest group of voters don’t want to be called Republicans or Democrats.”