With just one day to go until the New Hampshire primaries, Democrats vying to take on Donald Trump are competing over a different category of voters: independents.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are among the moderate Democrats making explicit appeals to New Hampshire’s independents, positioning themselves as centrist alternatives to the democratic socialism espoused by Bernie Sanders, who currently has a commanding lead in the state’s polls.
Because New Hampshire runs an open primary, Democrats and independents alike will be eligible to cast a ballot on Tuesday. And in New Hampshire, these “undeclared” individuals — who do not belong to any political party — make up the state’s largest voting bloc, about 42 per cent of voters.
New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary is seen as a crucial test for Democrats in the presidential nominating process, especially after last week’s Iowa caucuses were marred by technical glitches, clogged phone lines and multiple recounts.
Speaking with veterans at the American Legion in Merrimack last week, Mr Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, nodded to New Hampshirites’ fierce independent streak — the state’s official motto is “live free or die” — saying: “New Hampshire is New Hampshire, and New Hampshire is not the kind of place to let Iowa or anybody else tell you what to do.
“It is my responsibility to seek, to earn, every vote, in a state that famously thinks for itself,” added Mr Buttigieg, who narrowly won more delegates than Mr Sanders in Iowa.
The latest opinion polls show Mr Sanders leading in New Hampshire, a state that neighbours Vermont, which he represents in the US Senate. Four years ago, Mr Sanders won a decisive 22-point primary victory against Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
While Mr Sanders’ supporter base is expected to be smaller this time around, a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University poll of likely primary voters conducted at the weekend showed the Vermont senator in first place, with 27 per cent support, followed by Mr Buttigieg at 19 per cent and Ms Klobuchar at 14 per cent.
Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and former US vice-president Joe Biden are tied in fourth place with 12 per cent apiece. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, and more than a third of respondents said they “might change their mind” before Tuesday’s primary.
The same poll found that Mr Sanders commanded 25 per cent of independents, followed by Mr Buttigieg at 22 per cent, Ms Klobuchar at 15 per cent, Ms Warren at 10 per cent and Mr Biden with just 6 per cent.
Explicit appeals to independent voters were central to both Mr Buttigieg’s and Ms Klobuchar’s pitches as they criss-crossed the state at the weekend.
At a town hall in Keene on Saturday, Mr Buttigieg told supporters while fellow “diehard Democrats” were eager to boot out Mr Trump, he was also “seeing so many independents who feel equally strongly about making change in this country”.
Beth Zinn, a university administrator and registered independent who backed Mr Sanders in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, said after the Keene town hall that she would vote this year for Mr Buttigieg.
“He will be able to draw [moderates] in, as opposed to others who are further to the left, who are so liberal, that they are scary to those sort of centrists, or the Republicans who don’t like Trump,” she said.
For Ms Klobuchar, who finished fifth in Iowa, the New Hampshire primary could be a chance to capitalise on the surge of support she has seen in recent days following a strong debate performance on Friday night and newspaper endorsements.
She has reached out to moderate independents on the campaign trail by invoking Mitt Romney, a Republican senator who broke with his party last week to vote to convict Mr Trump on an impeachment charge of abuse of power, and imploring New Hampshire voters to tell their independent family and friends to support her.
After a Klobuchar rally in Nashua on Sunday afternoon, Donna Figler — an independent from Bedford — said while she was still undecided, Ms Klobuchar was on her shortlist. Another undecided independent voter, Christine Burke, said she was weighing up a vote for either Ms Klobuchar or Mr Buttigieg.
“I think that they both have pretty good ideas about what we should be doing to move the country forward,” she said.
The support of New Hampshire independents has long been seen as crucial to both Republicans and Democrats. The late senator John McCain won the Republican primary in New Hampshire in both 2000 and 2008 with strong support from independents.
In 2016, independents helped Mr Sanders secure his 22-point win in the New Hampshire primary over Mrs Clinton. Nine months later, in the general election, New Hampshire independents ultimately backed Mrs Clinton, giving her a 0.4 per cent victory over Mr Trump and allowing her to bank the state’s four electoral college votes.
James Skoufis, a New York state senator from a district that backed Barack Obama in 2012 before voting for Mr Trump in 2016, travelled to New Hampshire at the weekend to canvas for Mr Buttigieg. He said the support of independents could make an “enormous” difference to Mr Buttigieg or any other Democrat’s prospects both in a primary and a general election.
“Myself and others, a lot of others, are about to go out and knock not on just Democratic doors, but independent doors,” he said. “That is not just important for a primary in New Hampshire. You have got to do that in November too.”