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To win New Hampshire, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders need independent voters

In the state's semi-open primary on Tuesday, voters love to wait to make up their minds — and change them at the last minute.
Image: Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Campaigns In New Hampshire Ahead Of Primary
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at an Our Rights, Our Courts Forum at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord on Feb. 8, 2020.Win McNamee / Getty Images

Every four years, the nation’s focus turns to the small state of New Hampshire, that I call home, and the first real time that the candidates vying for their parties' nominations will face a vote. As someone who was born and raised in Manchester, I have seen countless primaries firsthand as both a resident and later a campaign staffer, and I have been lucky to meet, shake hands and attend town halls with many presidential hopefuls — something that many New Hampshirites view as part of their civic duty.

New Hampshire has always been a battleground state with its treasure trove of independent voters, and it’s no secret that it is a key focus state for Trump's re-election campaign — he even hosted a rally in Manchester on Monday evening. Meanwhile, while spending close to an estimated $150 million in the state, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden have spent the last week crisscrossing every nook and cranny in the small state trying to drum up as many votes as possible.

But some Democrats have more to lose in New Hampshire than just a primary.

According to polling from The Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University released Thursday, Sanders (23.6 percent) had only a 1 point lead over Buttigieg (22.6 percent) who was surging after his Iowa showing, while Biden was coming in at only 10.6 percent. A 7 News-Emerson College poll conducted over the weekend similarly shows Sanders and Buttigieg in the lead, with Klobuchar and Warren surprisingly ahead of Biden.

Both are a drastic change from the Globe/Suffolk University poll released early last week that showed Sanders at 24 percent to Biden’s 18 percent and Buttigieg’s 11 percent, and a significant change from the last year, when polls had suggested it was a three-way race among Sanders, Biden and Warren — with Buttigieg only sparking significant voter interest since Thanksgiving.

And then, in Friday night’s debate, sparks flew as the seven candidates who had qualified for the stage battled it out for votes and fired shots at Buttigieg instead of at Biden — a telling sign that the candidates think Mayor Pete is becoming the one to beat.

New Hampshire is traditionally more moderate in its political views, which tends to bode well for candidates such as Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden, rather than candidates such as Sanders and Warren, though the state's voters do tend to favor the person who they believe has the best shot in a general election — a trend borne out by the most recent CNN poll, which shows support for Sanders rising as his perceived ability to win the general election does. But the same polls suggest that a not-insignificant part of Biden’s loss in popularity has been Buttigieg’s gain.

Complicating the scenario for Sanders is the fact that Tuesday's context is a semi-open primary, meaning that both registered Democrats and those who aren't registered in a political party at all have the right to participate. Independent voters comprise about 40 percent of New Hampshire’s registered voters, and their vote can split a lot of different ways — as evidenced by all of the live coverage airing across networks showing a large number of voters who’ve yet to make up their mind.

That’s what makes determining who could win the New Hampshire open primary a real challenge — and why the candidates spend so much time, effort and money to saturate the state. Independent voters often take particular pride in not having their mind made up until hours before the election: Last week's Globe and CNN polls show about 11 percent of likely Democratic primary voters remained undecided, and about 43 percent of voters told the former pollsters that they might change their mind again before the primary.

And, outside of the normal variabilities, most polls (with the exception of Emerson College's) have failed to test for the results of a major demographic shift in the state: While New Hampshire is known for being predominantly white, the Census Bureau estimates that, for the first time in the state's history, 10 percent of its 1.3 million residents are a racial or an ethnic minority.

These demographic changes could have an impact on the primary; the Emerson poll, even with its small sample size, suggests outsize support for Sanders among Latino voters, for instance. But, when the other 90 percent of the state is older and whiter — the base of Buttigieg’s support — it might not be enough to swing things toward the Vermont senator after all.

It’s important to note that elections in New Hampshire are won based on the time that candidates have spent canvassing the state, hosting town halls and eating at diners. Unlike in larger, later primary states, New Hampshire highlights the candidates' ground games and how they can (or cannot) make individual connections with voters — something that often goes by the wayside in other states.

There’s a lot at stake in this primary, especially since the results (such as they are) from the Iowa caucuses remain so muddled. From 1952 until 1992, the winner of the New Hampshire primary went on to win their party’s nomination; John Kerry won here in 2004 (and went on to capture the nomination), whereas Hillary Clinton took the prize in 2008 but lost the nomination, and then lost the 2016 primary to Sanders but was the nominee.

While no one yet knows who will win this time, one thing is for certain: New Hampshire’s results will set the tone for the rest of the race and, unlike in Iowa, only one candidate will benefit from the victory.