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Six Factors That Could Decide New Hampshire Primaries

A look back at the makeup of the electorate during the past two election cycles gives a glimpse at how the voters make their picks.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Stories about the New Hampshire electorate are notoriously laden with cliches: Voters here are "flinty," ornery, last-minute deciders who interrogate presidential candidates like parents haranguing their teenager before Spring Break.

Past isn't always prologue, but a look back at the makeup of the electorate in the Granite State during the past two election cycles gives a glimpse at how these notoriously hard-to-predict voters have made their decisions about who to support in the high-stakes primaries.

1) Independents. Yes, they really are a thing here in New Hampshire. The Secretary of State's office estimated in December that almost 384,000 voters on the rolls were "undeclared" — more than 40 percent of total voters.

Undeclared voters can participate in either primary, they just have to pick a Republican or Democratic ballot. And they've tended to gravitate towards the more competitive contest when it's an open primary on both sides of the aisle. In 2008, registered independents made up 42 percent of the Democratic electorate, while they made up 34 percent on the GOP side.

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll out late last week showed Hillary Clinton trailing Bernie Sanders badly with independents, by more than two-to-one margin. It's not a group she won during her 2008 comeback win against Barack Obama, either, but the margin then was much closer than polls indicate this cycle.

Eight years ago, Clinton trailed Obama just 34 percent to 40 percent with registered independents. On the Republican side, independents broke for the winners in 2008 (John McCain) and 2012 (Mitt Romney).

But they've also been stumbling blocks for candidates who were frontrunners going into Primary Day. In 1996, more independents voted for Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchannan than Bob Dole, launching Buchannan to a stunning upset.

2) Late deciders: There's some credence to the oft-repeated tenet that New Hampshire voters make their decisions late.

Like, very late.

In 2012, 21 percent of Republican voters said they made their final call about who to support on the day of the primary itself. In 2008, a similar share made their calls on primary day itself, both on the GOP and Democratic side. In all three cycles, the late deciders supported the primary winner.

3) Women: Hillary Clinton is making an aggressive pitch for female voters in the state where they resurrected her political chances in 2008. That year, women made up 57 percent of the Democratic electorate, and Clinton won them over 46 percent to Obama's 34 percent. But this cycle, according to our latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, Clinton is trailing Sanders by four points overall with women.

And the split in the state isn't gender — it's generational. Clinton handily bests Sanders among women OVER 45 years old, but she's losing among women younger than 45 by nearly 30 points.

4) First-timers: First-time participants broke records in Iowa back in 2008, when a majority of the Democratic electorate was made up of people attending a caucus for the first time. In New Hampshire, that same year, only 19 percent of Democratic primary voters cast a vote for the first time. Those newcomers favored Obama, 47 percent to 37 percent.

On the Republican side, it was a similar picture four years ago, when just 12 percent were casting votes for the first time. That group broke for a candidate known for energizing young people and irritating the political establishment: Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

5) Evangelicals: Religious conservatives are WAY less of a factor in New Hampshire than in Iowa, where they make up a majority of the Republican electorate. But about one in five GOP primary voters here still describe themselves as evangelicals. This block hasn't overwhelmingly supported the winner of the Iowa caucuses, though. In 2008, they broke evenly for John McCain and Iowa winner Mike Huckabee; in 2012, when Romney was still (incorrectly) viewed as the Iowa victor, Rick Santorum got just 23 percent of the evangelical vote, compared to 31 percent for Romney.

6) Debates: This is a number that might not thrill Marco Rubio's campaign: Voters in New Hampshire say that debates matter, a lot. In the last two presidential cycles, about half of the electorate has called debates "very important" to their voting decision.