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Not Officially Republicans, 'Undeclared' Voters Could Sway N.H. Race

In Tuesday's primary, many of those showing up to vote will not be registered as Republicans. In New Hampshire, voters unaffiliated with either party can vote in the primary.

So-called "undeclared" voters outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in the Granite State, accounting for more than 40 percent of the electorate. That makes New Hampshire's independent vote a tempting, but elusive target.

That's one reason why former Utah governor Jon Huntsman bypassed Iowa to focus his energies in New Hampshire. Huntsman has a more moderate stance on social issues. He's defended evolution and says he believes the science behind global warming.

And he's tried to reach out to independent voters.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I want your vote. I know we've got people of all different political persuasions around this table. But if I don't ask for your vote, I'm not going to get it," Huntsman said at a gathering of business leaders in Portsmouth this week, where he made his pitch for reforming the tax code, cutting the deficit and restoring trust in government.

It's a campaign that helped him win an endorsement from the region's biggest newspaper, The Boston Globe. That approval reflects Huntsman's appeal to independents like Duncan Wood.

"Among the Republicans, he's to me the best choice this year. And I think, it's refreshing to hear, I thought it was a very open and genuine talk," Wood said at a Huntsman town hall last night in Newport.

Harking back to a political figure from a bygone era, he calls himself a "Rockefeller Republican" — fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues.

By maintaining an "undeclared" status, Wood says he's able to engage with candidates from both parties and cast his vote where it matters most.

"My wife and I, we voted in the Democratic primary last time because there wasn't really a contest we thought on the Republican side that was as interesting," Wood says. "This time we'll vote in the Republican party. We like living in New Hampshire because you get to see the candidates within a hundred feet."

But how many voters like Duncan Wood are there really? More than 4 in 10 voters in New Hampshire are listed as undeclared.

But don't read too much into that, says Andrew Smith, a political scientist who directs the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, Smith says, an undeclared voter is not the same as an independent voter. His research shows most undeclared voters connect with one of the major parties.

"About 35 to 40 percent of these undeclared voters are really Democrats. They act like Democrats, they behave like Democrats, they vote like Democrats. About 30 percent to 35 percent are really Republicans. And about 30 percent are truly independents. The overall thing we can say about this entire group is that they pay less attention to politics and they don't vote as often," Smith says.

Smith says his surveys show Huntsman does appeal to true independents. But so does Texas Congressman Ron Paul. And because true independents have a lower turnout rate, Smith says the payoff may be disappointing.

"Huntsman is appealing to a very specific group — independents and Democrats who are going to vote in the Republican primary. But again, that's a small percentage of the overall Republican primary vote. He's appealing to the 20 percent of the voters who aren't really Republicans," Smith says.

Because the registration rules have been eased in recent years, Smith says the number of undeclared voters has been growing. There are advantages to not being on a party list. You get fewer dinnertime phone calls, fewer fundraising appeals.

Many, like Loree Sullivan of Portsmouth, like the flexibility it gives them. Four years ago, she voted for Barack Obama. He's on the ballot next Tuesday — yes, there is a Democratic primary. But this time, however Sullivan will vote for a Republican candidate. She's just not sure which one.

"I'd like to know really specifics that are going to be done in the next four years. And, by going independent, I can wait up until that primary to make that decision — and who I think is the best candidate, not the best one from a particular party," Sullivan says.

Sullivan's son Ryan is also an undeclared, independent voter. He's 23 and this will be the first Presidential primary he's voted in. He's considering Huntsman, he says, but also Ron Paul.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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