Hillary Clinton has an unlikely supporter rooting for her to win Iowa: Republican presidential candidate John Kasich.
OK, before dismissing this incongruity as irrelevant inside baseball, hear the political logic.
Kasich, the mainstream Republican, and Bernie Sanders, the socialist Democrat, are in a quiet but intense struggle to win over New Hampshire independents, who can vote in either party’s primary. If Sanders wins the Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first presidential contest on Feb. 1, it may galvanize more of these independents to pick a Democratic ballot so they can vote for him eight days later in New Hampshire. If that happens, some polls suggest it could doom Kasich.
Independents make up more than 40 percent of New Hampshire’s electorate and are expected to comprise over a third of primary voters there on Feb. 9. They can decide on election day which primary to vote in.
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Granite State independents historically have been motivated less by ideology than by the persona and character of the candidates.
In surveys, Sanders, the senator from neighboring Vermont, is more popular with independent New Hampshire voters than Hillary Clinton. He’s running ahead of her now; getting a healthy chunk of the independent vote might assure a substantial victory. The two are locked in a tight battle in Iowa.
But Kasich, who isn’t trying to compete in Iowa, has focused heavily on New Hampshire independents, especially women, both in advertising and campaign appearances.
A recent poll by the Boston radio station WBUR found that of all the candidates on both sides, only Sanders and Kasich have net favorable approval ratings from New Hampshire independents, while suggesting a large number remain undecided.
If Kasich, who is governor of Ohio, gets a healthy chunk of these voters he’d be well positioned to finish second or third in the primary, behind Donald Trump but ahead of the other establishment candidates. That probably would keep him in the race in March – when 21 states have primaries and many delegates are at stake – perhaps as the mainstream alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz. If he doesn’t do well with New Hampshire independents, Kasich acknowledges, his candidacy is dead. He was supported by an average of just 2.8 percent of Republicans nationally in recent polls.
There is a parallel to the current contest between these two unlikely protagonists. In 2000, the New Hampshire primaries were between George W. Bush and John McCain on the Republican side with Al Gore pitted against Bill Bradley on the Democratic ballot. Both McCain and Bradley heavily courted New Hampshire independents.
In the end, large numbers of independents voted in the Republican primary for McCain, securing his victory there. Bradley, without sufficient independent support, narrowly lost.