New Hampshire Democrats Can Vote in the GOP Primary. That Means Trouble for Trump (and Maybe Sanders Too).

“You’re a free agent that day. … Essentially register as a Republican or a Democrat for 15 minutes.”

Donald Trump at a regional police-union meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Dec. 10.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Dec. 18, 2015, 10:26 a.m.

NASHUA, New Hamp­shire—Liza­beth Au­th teaches nurs­ing, is a proud Demo­crat, likes Bernie Sanders, and may well rep­res­ent the last, best hope for Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie.

Or Jeb Bush. Or John Kasich. Or any Re­pub­lic­an, for that mat­ter, not named Don­ald Trump. Be­cause as much as she loves the things Sen. Sanders is say­ing in his bid for the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, she hates even more the things celebrity busi­ness­man Trump is say­ing dur­ing his cur­rent dom­in­ance of the Re­pub­lic­an field. So much so, in fact, that she may be will­ing to give up the chance to vote in the Demo­crat­ic primary in or­der to cast an anti-Trump vote in the Re­pub­lic­an con­test.

“Any night of the week,” she said while wait­ing in line to see Sanders dur­ing his re­cent vis­it to Nashua Com­munity Col­lege. “I ab­so­lutely do not want [Trump] as pres­id­ent.” 

Au­th, 51, is ac­tu­ally in an easy po­s­i­tion to do this. Un­like many states where only mem­bers re­gistered in a party well ahead of time can vote in that primary, New Hamp­shire per­mits “un­declared” voters to re­gister in a party on the day of the elec­tion—and then switch back to un­declared as they leave the polling place.

“You’re a free agent that day,” says Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Dante Scala. “Es­sen­tially re­gister as a Re­pub­lic­an or a Demo­crat for 15 minutes.”

And in New Hamp­shire, un­declared voters like Au­th make up nearly half of the 870,000 voters on the rolls, in­creas­ing the pos­sib­il­ity that more of these voters will be drawn to the Re­pub­lic­an primary if that con­test ap­pears to be the more rel­ev­ant as the Feb. 9 vote draws near.

Which means that as the cal­en­dar turns and the vot­ing be­gins, it’s pos­sible that the best thing that can hap­pen for Christie or Bush—or any of the non-Trump oth­ers—is for Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton to win Iowa in a crush­ing land­slide.

***

Iowa, of course, won’t be de­cided un­til Feb­ru­ary. Clin­ton cur­rently holds a double-di­git lead over Sanders in re­cent Iowa polls, and has built an im­mense voter-turnout op­er­a­tion there modeled on what Barack Obama cre­ated in 2008 to surge past her on his way to the nom­in­a­tion.

Yet even if Clin­ton scores a strong win there, New Hamp­shire voters might not ne­ces­sar­ily ac­cept that the nom­in­a­tion is hers. In 2008, for ex­ample, Obama wound up los­ing New Hamp­shire—to Clin­ton—des­pite his Iowa vic­tory.

John Formella, chair­man of the Ports­mouth Re­pub­lic­ans, says he can­not not really see Demo­crats com­ing across to vote in his party’s primary, par­tic­u­larly giv­en Sanders’s cur­rent lead in New Hamp­shire. “I feel like if Hil­lary’s got it wrapped up, then yes,” Formella says. “But I feel like people here in New Hamp­shire won’t think she’s got it wrapped up.”

Doug Palardy, like Formella at­tend­ing a watch party for the re­cent GOP de­bate at a down­town tav­ern, says New Hamp­shire voters pride them­selves on not caring what hap­pens in Iowa. “Iowa’s sort of a thing for the me­dia to re­port on,” he says. “New Hamp­shire is go­ing to be so wrapped up in it­self.”

Still, a Na­tion­al Journ­al re­view of turnout re­cords from New Hamp­shire go­ing back to 1984 shows some evid­ence that when there isn’t a com­pet­it­ive race in one party, at least some per­cent­age of those voters cross over to cast bal­lots in the oth­er party’s primary.

In 1996, for ex­ample, only 91,000 people voted in the Demo­crat­ic primary, where Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton was run­ning un­op­posed, while 209,000 voted in the Re­pub­lic­an primary, where Pat Buchanan edged out even­tu­al nom­in­ee Bob Dole. That 209,000 fig­ure, in fact, was more than the num­ber of votes Dole wound up win­ning in New Hamp­shire that Novem­ber (al­though third-party can­did­ate Ross Perot was likely re­spons­ible for some of that).

In 2000, loc­al fa­vor­ite John Mc­Cain pulled so many un­declared voters to the GOP primary that it drew nearly 90 per­cent of the total num­ber of votes that nom­in­ee George W. Bush re­ceived in the state that Novem­ber. The Demo­crat­ic primary, in con­trast, had few­er than 60 per­cent of the total votes that Al Gore won that Novem­ber.

And in 2008, some Obama sup­port­ers be­lieve that Mc­Cain’s con­tin­ued pop­ular­ity in the state at­trac­ted many in­de­pend­ents who oth­er­wise would have voted for Obama in the Demo­crat­ic primary, let­ting Clin­ton beat him here and for­cing the long, drawn-out del­eg­ate battle that las­ted through spring.

Linda Fowl­er, a gov­ern­ment pro­fess­or at Dart­mouth Col­lege in Han­over, stud­ied cros­sov­er vot­ing in the 2000 elec­tion, spe­cific­ally to look for par­tis­ans go­ing in­to the oth­er party’s primary to vote for the weak­est gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ate, with the goal of mak­ing it easi­er for their own party to win in Novem­ber. Fowl­er says she found little evid­ence of that, but did see some cros­sov­er vot­ing that year for a dif­fer­ent reas­on.

“They voted for Al Gore in the gen­er­al elec­tion, but voted in the GOP primary be­cause they thought Mc­Cain was a bet­ter can­did­ate for the coun­try than George W. Bush,” she says.

Fowl­er says voters were less ideo­lo­gic­ally at­tached to their parties 15 years ago and that she does not know how many voters might do the same thing this time around. That said, she does know of one nor­mally Demo­crat­ic voter who will do ex­actly that: her­self.

“I’m go­ing to vote in the Re­pub­lic­an primary and vote for any­one but Trump,” she says.

***

Fig­ur­ing out pre­cisely how many oth­er Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing voters would join her is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, the Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire’s Scala says.

“There is a group of voters out there who are truly up for grabs, and some of them might be people who would take the time to con­sider where their vote would be most ef­fec­tu­al,” he says, but adds that he doubts there are too many as en­gaged and in­formed as Fowl­er. “I think once you get bey­ond the uni­verse of polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists, that type of voter really drops off.”

Of the nearly 400,000 un­declared voters, Scala be­lieves that about 40 per­cent are in real­ity Re­pub­lic­ans and 40 per­cent are really Demo­crats who for a vari­ety of reas­ons prefer not to re­gister with a party. That leaves about 20 per­cent, or 80,000 voters, who are truly un­af­fili­ated.

And in his view, the ma­jor­ity of those are noth­ing like Fowl­er, but in­stead are pay­ing little or no at­ten­tion to the pres­id­en­tial race. “They might not vote at all, or might de­cide in the last week be­fore the elec­tion, de­pend­ing on who is in the head­lines,” he says.

But in an elec­tion with such a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure as Trump, should he still be a factor after Iowa, a big­ger un­known is how many of those 160,000 Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing un­declared voters like Fowl­er or Au­th will sim­il­arly aban­don their primary.

At the Sanders cam­paign event in Nashua, a num­ber of oth­ers said they, too, could be coun­ted on if ne­ces­sary.

Mag­dalina Vasquez, a 33-year-old nurs­ing stu­dent at Nashua Com­munity Col­lege, says she be­lieves Trump’s lan­guage and ideas are dan­ger­ous be­cause they ap­peal to people’s worst in­stincts. “With Trump run­ning, there’s this hatred com­ing out in our coun­try,” she says, adding that if, some­how, a na­tion­al data­base of Muslims were to be cre­ated, she would con­vert to Is­lam in solid­ar­ity.

She says she would cross over to the Re­pub­lic­an primary “in a heart­beat” to de­feat Trump—but should he win the pres­id­ency any­way? “Our coun­try will crumble, and I will be on the next plane out of here.”

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