CONCORD, N.H. (Jan. 9, 2012) — John Wible is one of New Hampshire’s career independent voters — and representative of its distinctive political culture.
Take, for example, his voting record. For Ronald Reagan. Against Ronald Reagan. For Bill Clinton. Against Bill Clinton. For George W. Bush. Against George W. Bush.
Each time, he said, “It was time to clean house. I didn’t think they were very effective anymore.”
Wible is among the one in five New Hampshire voters who refuse to declare a political affiliation. They are fiercely independent. They are a product of New Hampshire’s distinctive political system. And they often choose the winner of their state’s primaries.
That fiercely independent New Hampshire voter was striking to George Cox, who graduated from University of Texas at Dallas in December. He is now in New Hampshire to volunteer for the John Huntsman campaign for two weeks.
“People here are much more engaged,” Cox said. People in New Hampshire, he said, are much more responsive to volunteers like him “when you’re doing the grunt work of the campaign, making phone calls, door-to-door.”
The New Hampshire political system encourages both that engagement and independence. The retail politics gets people out to meet candidates. And the election laws help voters remain distant from political parties.
Undeclared voters are allowed to choose which primary they will vote in on Election Day. The ease with which voters can declare a party on election day tends to encourage more turnout. In 2008, for example, more than half of New Hampshire’s voters turned out to cast their ballots.
For Tuesday’s primaries, election officials are estimating a turnout of 250,000 voters for the Republican primary and 75,000 voters on the Democratic side.
Every major poll predicts Mitt Romney will win the primary, but the race for second has narrowed in its final days. The other candidates are scrambling for second place, with hopes of keeping alive their presidential ambitions. In the past 50 years, no GOP candidate has won the party’s nomination without coming in first or second in New Hampshire.
Several New Hampshire Tea Party groups, some among the oldest in the country, met before the primary and decided they would not endorse candidate as a group. But some Tea Party leaders have endorsed candidates in open letters and conversations.
The three candidates with the most support from individual tea party members reveal ideological differences among party members here. Among the Tea Party-affiliated groups, Ron Paul appeals to fiscal conservatives and Constitutionalists and Rick Santorum appeals to social conservatives. But Mitt Romney supporters in the Tea Party movement say he is the GOP’s best chance to defeat president Obama in the general election.
For Jane Aitken, a co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, Romney is too establishment. Aitken, a former teacher in Bedford, has supported Ron Paul since 2007.
She praises her state’s primary system for vetting candidates. “There is no excuse for anyone in New Hampshire not to have met and asked directly a question of these candidates,” she said.
For his part, career independent Wible, 60, has been attending the rallies, dinners and town hall meetings of several candidates. He’s leaning heavily toward Romney. He’s is an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. And he is proud of the New Hampshire process.
“I think people over the years have cultivated it,” Wible said, “and outside people involved seem to think it’s a worthwhile venue to come in and sort of winnow the field a little bit.”
(M.T. Elliott, a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at Syracuse University, is covering the New Hampshire primary for the San Angelo Standard-Times.)