Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can McCain Win New Hampshire Swing Voters?

One of the assumptions underlying John McCain's purported electability in New Hampshire is the role of political independents, who can swing to one side or the other in the primaries, prividing the pivotal votes needed for victory.

How will the swing vote play out in January? The Washington Post has the analysis:

As Sen. John McCain, a Republican running for president, touted the endorsement Monday of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a maverick Democrat-turned-independent, it seemed designed to capture a legendary brand of New Hampshirite, a state icon on par with the moose: the independent voter.

New Hampshire law allows people who are registered as "undeclared" to vote in either party's contest in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. That has led political strategists to speak respectfully of the swing voters who wait until the last minute to decide which party's primary to vote in, thereby exerting an outsized, and unpredictable, effect on the outcome.

Such voters are expected to make up at least a quarter of the vote on Jan. 8, and all the candidates are in hot pursuit. McCain (Ariz.) is touting his appeal among centrists such as Lieberman (Conn.). Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is offering his mix of social moderation, fiscal conservatism and hawkish anti-terrorism rhetoric. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is promoting his reach across the political divide, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) argues that there is nothing more independent on offer than his grass-roots libertarian crusade.

Yet the battle for the independents is taking on a new aspect this year, with implications for both parties' primaries: There are signs that the true swing voter, trying to make up his mind between parties, is much less in play.

Political scientists studying the state have noted in recent years that most of its undeclared voters favor one party, with a slight majority now leaning Democratic, and are thus independent in name only. While a growing share of the state's voters are undeclared -- 44 percent -- at most a third of those voters are seen as true independents.

"A lot of these independents are people who have a leaning, but are typical Yankees who don't want to be identified with any party. Who knows -- maybe they think that they'll get less appeals for money that way? But the bottom line is that they either lean Republican or lean Democratic," said Steve Duprey, a former state Republican chairman who is advising McCain here.

The partisan cast of the undeclared is being borne out even more this election season because of the polarizing effects of the Iraq war and President Bush's tenure in general, both of which are unpopular with the state's unaffiliated voters. In 2000, McCain, running as an anti-establishment reformer, vied with Bill Bradley, the former Democratic senator from New Jersey, for the affections of New Hampshire independents -- a battle McCain won, and one that probably cost Bradley an upset win over Al Gore.

This time, there is far less evidence of a direct battle for independents between McCain (or Giuliani) and Obama, the Democratic candidate who is appealing to many of the same voters that Bradley did. There is a gulf between the platforms being offered by McCain and Giuliani on the one hand, and Obama on the other, that is unlike anything that existed between McCain and Bradley.

McCain and Giuliani vow to stay the course in Iraq; Obama cites his early opposition to the war. McCain is relying heavily on the support of older veterans, while Obama is going after the youth vote. Obama is proposing a large expansion of health insurance, but Giuliani mocks such plans as socialistic.

Many independents who voted for McCain in 2000 or considered it say doing so in January is out of the question because of his staunch support of the war.

"I think George Bush has been simply horrible . . . and I'm afraid that Mr. McCain just doesn't see the direction the country is going in," said Bill Nostrom, a retired dairy farmer from Newmarket. He voted for McCain in 2000 but is planning to vote for Obama.

McCain's weakening hold on independents holds enormous potential for Obama. In opinion polls done by the University of New Hampshire this year, 55 to 70 percent of undeclared voters said they would vote in the Democratic primary. (In 2000, 62 percent of independents who voted did so in the GOP primary.) A few months ago, there was little sign that Obama was taking advantage, as polls showed him doing no better among undeclared voters intending to vote Democratic than he was among registered Democrats.

But in last week's UNH survey, he showed gains among undeclared voters intending to vote in the Democratic primary, with 36 percent saying they would vote for him and 26 percent saying they would vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), putting him in a tie with her overall. Obama's advisers here say it simply took a little longer for independent voters to move to him than it did for them to rally around Bradley in 2000, because Obama is newer to the political scene.

"Voters did not know who Barack Obama was. Barack Obama was someone they had to learn about," said Jim Demers, a Concord lobbyist who is co-chairing Obama's campaign here.

The McCain campaign does not dispute that it is pursuing a more limited universe of New Hampshire independents than in 2000. Advisers say the campaign is still targeting independents more than it is establishment Republicans, with an effort that includes a television advertisement showing McCain speaking directly to the camera about the special interests and establishment Republicans he has aggravated over the years. But this time, advisers say, McCain is competing less for undeclared voters who are also considering voting for a Democrat than going after undeclared voters who would vote in the GOP primary no matter what.

Lieberman's endorsement, they said, helps in that regard, drawing Republican-leaning independents who admire his resolve on the war, as well as establishment Republicans who perhaps see in his endorsement proof that McCain would be electable next fall. But there is little illusion that the support of Lieberman, who draws the scorn of many Democrats, will win over independents interested in Obama.

"There's going to be a good percentage of independents who historically take the Republican ballot and don't care about Barack or Hillary, and we want their votes, and this is a great way to solidify that," said Duprey, the McCain adviser.

The lack of direct competition between the Obama and McCain campaigns is clear in the contrast between their appearances here. In a recent visit, Obama presided over a panel discussion with his foreign policy advisers before about 120 voters in Portsmouth. In it, he laid out his plans for using diplomacy to reengage America with the rest of the world.

McCain, by contrast, has adopted a much more muscular tone than he did in 2000, with a martial campaign logo, a video highlighting his military heroism played for crowds at his appearances, and a heavy emphasis on his support of the Iraq war. At most appearances, McCain asks veterans in the crowd to stand to be applauded, and questions regarding veterans' issues -- and inside jokes between McCain and veterans -- dominate his events more than they did in 2000. In Bedford, McCain dismissed a question by a young woman who cited poll numbers showing that a majority of military families question the war, telling her: "I know the military, and I know that by the thousands they categorically reject that assertion."

While the approach may have a narrower appeal than McCain's reform platform of 2000, it has solidified his support among some core Republican-leaning independent backers, such as Ed McCabe, a landlord and Army reservist who has served in Iraq.

"A lot of us were with McCain last time, and a lot of those same people want to be able to say 'I was right last time' " by backing McCain again now, he said.

The polling data provided here's not to be fully trusted. There's no breakdown in support for those who are likely to vote in the GOP primary. How many of those voters will go for McCain? He's going to need their support.

There's bound to be lots more guys like Ed McCabe, the Army reservist quoted above. Go McCain!

See my earlier McCain posts, here, here, here, and here - and don't forget this one, "McCain Deserves a Second Look."