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Late Deciders in New Hampshire

Jeff Jones

We completed our poll of New Hampshire voters, which shows Barack Obama with a double-digit lead among likely Democratic voters and John McCain with a smaller advantage (within the margin of error) among Republican voters.

One thing that struck me was the still relatively high proportion of voters who say they could still change their mind -- 27% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans. In our final national pre-election polls, we might get 1 in 10 voters saying they could change their mind.

It's understandable that primary voters would have more uncertainty than general election voters because they are choosing among candidates who, for the most part, share the same basic issue positions, while in the general election, the candidates are much more differentiated from each other on the issues.

So a lot of the decision for primary voters comes down to other factors -- probably candidate characteristics. The candidate that best fits the quality or qualities that New Hampshire voters are looking for will most likely determine the ultimate winner.

Democratic voters appear to be looking for the next president to bring "change," and based in part on the analysis of the Iowa "entrance" polls, Obama seems to be emerging as the "change" candidate. In our New Hampshire poll, 51% of likely Democratic primary voters believe Obama is the candidate who most fits the description "has new ideas that would help solve the country's problems," compared with 19% who say this of Hillary Clinton and 18% about John Edwards.

In fact, Obama leads on all the characteristics tested in the poll except one: "can get things done in Washington." On this dimension, 49% say it most applies to Clinton, while 25% choose Obama. Clinton's recent appeals seem to be playing up this notion in her attempt to sway the swing voters. That has always been her strength, but if she loses in New Hampshire (if not her bid for the nomination), it would be clear that Democrats value change much more than experience in the 2008 election.

On the Republican side, it is less clear what voters are looking for, so the outcome in New Hampshire will provide some clues. The Iowa entrance polls did not provide as neat an answer as to what Republicans value in the next president as they did for the Democrats. There's the general belief that Mike Huckabee won because of his appeal to evangelical voters, which there are less of in New Hampshire.

Either current front-runner McCain or second place Mitt Romney lead on each of the personal characteristics tested in the USA Today/Gallup poll. McCain has the advantage on being "in touch with the average American," "stands up for what he believes in," and "can get things done in Washington." Romney has an advantage on the "new ideas that would solve the country's problems" dimension. The two are evenly matched on the "shares your values" and "has the best chance of beating the Democrat" items.

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