Sure, the polls show Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton ahead in their quests for their respective parties’ nominations. But polls, at this stage of the race, are notorious for being unreliable. They measure how people would vote today, not in the future.
Never mind that political surveys also can't accurately calculate if and how independents (as opposed to registered partisans) will vote in state primaries and caucuses that allow their participation. Neither do they account for second choices. But if you take into account these X factors — admittedly a speculative venture — Giuliani and Barack Obama may have as-yet-unrecognized potential to pull off surprise wins in New Hampshire, where both currently trail.
Unknown quantities in any state, independents have the power to elevate a trailing candidate or to reinforce one’s dominance. But their presence in New Hampshire is especially compelling, since independents in that state can outnumber registered partisans (particularly on the Republican side) and can vote in either contest. They’ve determined New Hampshire primaries in the past, and could certainly do it again.
In 2000, for instance, Al Gore led Bill Bradley, while George Bush led John McCain among registered party affiliates in the lead up to the Granite State’s primary. But when the independents — who tend to support less partisan candidates or flock to the polls to vote against a candidate they don’t like — weighed in, McCain passed Bush while Gore maintained his lead over Bradley. (Had more independents voted in the Democratic primary, Bradley likely would have stolen votes from McCain and overtaken Gore, and McCain might have been an historical asterisk. Of course, that didn’t happen.)
Predicting where the independents will flock is pure guesswork. So there’s little certainty as to how the upcoming New Hampshire primary will play out, even though "bring us together" Obama has made the strongest effort to appeal across party lines. Giuliani and McCain probably have similar support from some moderate independents, as does Clinton among voters who want to see a woman elected.
An intriguing question, then, is where an anti-Clinton independent vote, if it materializes, might congregate. Obama or Edwards are the obvious choices — though Giuliani recently has made efforts to identify himself as the “anti-Clinton" candidate in the race. That's good politics on his part, and it means independent voters who want to stop Clinton have a tactical choice that could determine the New Hampshire outcome in both parties.
Second choices are another crucial — though, for now, unquantifiable — aspect in determining who ultimately will secure a party’s nomination. Right now, the polls measure support for all candidates, but by the time most voters choose — even in New Hampshire — the field will be narrowed substantially by earlier results.
Recent elections have shown that the primary electorate will abandon a preferred candidate if he or she has done poorly elsewhere. If Mitt Romney wins Iowa, then, he obviously will get a bounce into New Hampshire. But what about the candidates who do worse than expected in the early contests? As their support dissipates, where do their votes go?