Call It Independents' Day

The New Hampshire primaries fall on January 8 this year, just five days after Iowa's early vote, and their format has little in common with the caucuses that precede them. Yet the state has some quirks of its own.

Like all primarygoers, voters in New Hampshire cast ballots at their local precincts. But the state has a semiopen primary system, which means independent voters can request either party's ballot at the polls. And an unusually high number of voters have signed up as independents.

Question marks. More than 20 states have open primaries. But in New Hampshire, roughly 44 percent of all voters are "undeclared," compared with 31 percent who are registered Republicans and 26 percent who are Democrats. Their numbers have grown significantly since 1996, when 32 percent of voters identified themselves as undeclared.

An unaffiliated mass can have a marked effect on election outcomes. In 2000, 62 percent of the state's independents voted in the Republican primary, helping John McCain defeat George W. Bush by an 18-point margin. This year, the political winds have shifted: More than half of all New Hampshire independents plan to vote in the Democratic primary, according to a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll.

Whether a primary is open or closed affects campaign strategy, says Tom Brunell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas. "In a closed primary, candidates are going for the party's heart and soul," Brunell says. "In an open primary, you can attract independents and possibly moderate voters from the other side as well."

For candidates at odds with the party's base, open primaries can be a saving grace--or a political death knell. "Candidates like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani don't usually do well in Republican closed primaries," Brunell says. The implication: Falter in New Hampshire, and your campaign could be in trouble.

By Peter Gandy