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
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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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