Polls show that Mitt Romney remains well positioned to win Tuesday's New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, but younger voters appear to be underrepresented in these surveys, and that could lead to a closer-than-expected contest.
The latest Suffolk University tracking poll, conducted in conjunction with Boston-based WHDH-TV and released on Monday, shows Romney's lead slipping, as the former Massachusetts governor now is the preferred candidate of just 33 percent of likely GOP primary voters. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is second, with 20 percent, followed by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has improved to 13 percent. Huntsman is in a virtual tie with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, at 11 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., at 10 percent.
The most recent tracking poll was conducted on Saturday and Sunday. In the previous two-day sample, conducted Jan. 5-6, Romney was at 39 percent, with Paul at 17 percent. Romney was hovering in the low 40s for most of the tracking poll, which began on Dec. 30.
Although the Suffolk University poll shows Romney continuing to slide, a new WMUR-TV/University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released late Sunday night puts Romney in a stronger position, with 41 percent, 24 points ahead of Paul and 30 points ahead of Santorum and Huntsman. Notably, the UNH poll was in the field longer--from Jan. 5 through Sunday.
But the new polls may overstate Romney's support by oversampling older voters and female voters, two groups among whom Romney runs stronger. Just 9 percent of respondents in the latest Suffolk tracking poll were under age 35. According to 2008 exit polls in the state, 14 percent of voters in the GOP primary were under age 30; the age breaks vary, but the percentage of voters under 35 was likely around 20 percent in 2008.
The UNH poll similarly under samples younger voters: Just 8 percent of poll respondents said they were under age 35. In both polls, 25 percent of voters were age 65 or older, more than the 15 percent of 65-plus voters in the 2008 exit poll.
This could be potentially significant. In both polls, Romney lags among these younger voters. In the Suffolk poll, he captures just 22 percent of the under-35 vote, trailing Paul, who is at 36 percent among that group. Romney does slightly better in the UNH poll, winning 36 percent of the under-35 vote, though that is still worse than his overall performance.
David Paleologos of Suffolk University Political Research Center said in a brief telephone interview that Suffolk's interviewers call cell phones, and they weight by age to ensure a representative sample. Paleologos said the percentage of respondents aged 18-34 to the tracking poll has fluctuated between 9 and 15 percent over the last week-and-a-half.
But he rejected the notion that younger voters would represent a significantly larger percentage of the primary electorate than in the past. "We don't believe that that's going to be the makeup of this," Paleologos said.
The impact of younger voters was clear in last week's Iowa caucuses. According to entrance polls, 15 percent of caucus-goers were under age 30. That was 4 percentage points higher than the under-30 turnout in the 2008 caucuses--in part due to Paul's robust campaign organization and its dependence on younger voters.
Considering Paul is also well organized in New Hampshire--and the lack of a competitive Democratic primary--it is possible that younger voters could make up a larger portion of the Republican primary electorate than in 2008, meaning that the new polls are missing even more of these voters.
The two new polls may also be oversampling female voters, who tend to favor Romney more than their male counterparts. In each poll, female GOP primary voters make up slightly more than half of respondents. Romney runs 5 points better among female voters in the Suffolk poll and 4 points better in the UNH poll. He captures 31 percent of the male vote in the Suffolk poll and 39 percent in the UNH poll.
But, according to 2008 exit polls, more men are likely to vote in the GOP primary than women. Men outnumbered women four years ago, 57 percent to 43 percent.
And while the absence of a contested Democratic primary featuring a female presidential candidate, as in 2008, might lead to an increased female turnout on the GOP side, that did not happen in Iowa, where men constituted a 57 percent majority of caucus-goers, according to exit polls. That is actually up slightly from 56 percent in 2008.
As among younger voters, Paul runs stronger among men, raising the possibility that his support is being underrepresented in these new polls.
Polling the New Hampshire primary has historically been a risky proposition. In 2008, the final UNH poll on the Democratic side gave then-Sen. Barack Obama a 9-point lead over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; Clinton went on to defeat Obama by 2 points in the primary.
The new Suffolk University poll surveyed 500 likely primary voters, for a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points. The UNH poll surveyed 461 likely primary voters, for a margin of error of +/- 4.7 points.