The Los Angeles Times offers a good view of the alleged battle for New Hampshire's independents between Barack Obama and John McCain. Unfortunately, they stuck it with a misleading headline:
McCain losing votes to Obama in N. H.
What's wrong with this head? Verb tense. The story itself amply demonstrates that McCain lost those voters some time ago.
Eight years ago, people really did see Bill Bradley and John McCain as two of a kind -- both independent mavericks bucking the party establishment candidates. They even did a joint appearance on behalf of campaign finance reform during the run-up to the primary. Nothing like that has happened this time -- of course, a lot has changed. Everybody laughs now when we think about the meme of the 2000 election, that Bush and Gore were essentially the same candidate, and that Bradley and McCain together presented the alternative to politics-as-usual.
And in the last two general elections, New Hampshire's undeclared voters have not been undecided between the two parties. In 2004, 56 percent of independents voted for John Kerry. Polling in 2007 indicates that 60 percent of undeclareds plan to vote in the Democratic primary. Is McCain's persona enough to turn a Democratic-leaning undeclared into a McCain voter?
My colleague Andrew Smith at the University of New Hampshire estimates that 20-25 percent of undeclared (not registered partisan) voters are truly independent voters.
There are roughly 375,000 undeclared voters right now in New Hampshire (out of a total of 850,000 registered voters). Maybe 40-45 percent of them will turn out to vote next Tuesday. (Roughly this percentage turned out in 2000, the last time we had contested primaries in both major political parties.) That's a universe of 160,000 voters.
Of those folks, let's say 25 percent of them are truly independent voters. That's roughly 40,000 voters. If EVERY ONE of them were deciding between Obama and McCain (and I have seen absolutely no evidence for this, other than a few anecdotes), that would constitute a "swing vote" of 8 percent, assuming an overall turnout of half a million New Hampshire voters next Tuesday.
Again, that 8 percent is a ceiling, not a floor. As my colleague Smith says, the "independent" undeclared voter here is likely very unengaged in politics. So their turnout rate will likely be lower than it will be for undeclared voters who are really partisans in disguise. And again, it is very, very probable that not every truly independent undeclared voter is deciding between Obama and McCain right now.
So my guess is that the number of New Hampshire voters deciding between Obama and McCain probably is no more than 3 to 4 percent of ALL likely primary voters, at most.