The independent, all-knowing New Hampshire voter and other election myths

The independent, all-knowing New Hampshire voter and other election myths
An election worker hands out stickers to voters after they cast their ballots in Belmont, N.H., on Tuesday. (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)

Every four years, politicians descend on New Hampshire to genuflect to the state's legendary voters. They tell them how wise, how discerning, how independent, how engaged they are.

While voters in other states are accustomed to receiving a certain level of puffery, the New Hampshire voter is put on a pedestal that would make a Nobel laureate jealous.


Leave it to a pair of locals to blow the whole gig open.

"While there is a kernel of truth to many aspects of this caricature, it is primarily a myth," write David Moore and Andrew E. Smith, a pair of University of New Hampshire professors who may not be invited to many more faculty teas.

Moore, a former senior editor of Gallup Poll and founder of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, and Smith, a pollster who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, lay out their case in a chapter of "The First Primary: New Hampshire's Outsize Role in Presidential Politics," released late last year, just in time to take all the joy from the primary season.

Their biggest beef is with the so-called independence of the New Hampshire voter. Though about 44% of the state's residents are registered "undeclared," only 15% actually call themselves independent in polls. They blame journalists for confusing the term "independent" with "undeclared," a status many voters take either to avoid being identified publicly as a partisan or so they can vote in whichever party's primary is most competitive.

But these undeclared voters may not have the impact they are credited with because they tend to show up at the polls less often than registered partisans.

The idea that independent voters can swing a primary election is also overstated, the authors conclude. Exit polls consistently show that candidates never win the top spot in their primaries without garnering the most support from registered members of their own parties.

And there is little evidence supporting the theory that undeclared voters use the open primary system to cause mischief by supporting a dolt in the party they most dislike.

The question of whether New Hampshire voters are truly more engaged than voters elsewhere is similarly open to debate.

Moore and Smith concede there is strong evidence that some voters are highly engaged "but the great majority of adults do not, in fact, attend campaign events." Their research shows an average of about one in five New Hampshire voters has attended a campaign event during each primary since 2000.

On the other hand, a rather remarkable 12% have told pollsters that they've shaken a presidential candidate's hand in those elections.

Good luck getting that kind of access in Houston, Los Angeles or New York City during a mayor's race, much less a presidential election.

Still, it's fair to say not everyone in the Granite State catches the political bug.

Wendy Fife, 37, who was coming out of a restaurant in Rochester last week, said she has never voted, and she's sick of political news and advertisements on television.


"It doesn't interest me," she said. "It's not like sitting down and watching the Patriots game."

And not everyone among the crowded political rallies shown on television is actually a voter.

At a Bernie Sanders rally at Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire on Monday morning, some students of voting age at the event were not even sure why they were there. One woman said she had shown up because her professor mandated it. Was she planning to vote Tuesday? "There is a vote Tuesday?" she responded.

At that event and other Sanders rallies in the finals days of campaigning, in fact, actual New Hampshire voters were hard to find. Some crowds were made up in large part by "political tourists" from other states who came to take advantage of the chance to meet presidential candidates.

More significantly, Moore and Smith found that the candidates who camp out in the state are seldom the ones who win.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is fighting for second place in the state, said he has held more than 100 town halls in New Hampshire. "It's all about town halls," he said on CNN recently. "People want to take your temperature."

But as seen in nearly every other state, New Hampshire's primary winners tend to be the ones who spend a lot of money, reaching more voters on television than at the Elks Club. This year's Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, is an exception to that rule, using his celebrity to get free news coverage and fill large rally halls. He even largely avoided spending the night in the state or shaking hands in small diners.

"More often than not," Moore and Smith write, "the big dog gets the bone."

Still, don't count on politicians departing from their earnest rhetoric about the thoughtful geniuses who inhabit early voting states.

"National media narrative doesn't impact voters, especially in places like New Hampshire," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Tuesday, in an interview with WMUR, the state's largest television station. "These are serious voters. These are people that have taken their time, they've met with the candidates, they know the issues better than anybody I've ever interacted with. They're not listening to Sunday shows. They're going to make their decisions based on who they think is right for the country and that's why we feel so good about it."

Los Angeles Times staff writers Evan Halper and Chris Megerian contributed to this report from New Hampshire.

Follow me @noahbierman on Twitter.