In Iowa and N.H., 2008 election more volatile than most

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Despite what many political experts, campaign officials and media outlets keep insisting, there's no frontrunner in either the Democratic or Republican race for the White House.

Huge numbers of voters in the early primary and caucus states of Iowa and New Hampshire remain undecided and, in many cases, unimpressed by major candidates.

"There's a lot of confusion among people right now," said Pamela Choquette, a social worker from Pittsburg, N.H. "They're undecided."

Voters are saying that, as in past years, they won't make up their minds until they cast their votes at Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses or enter the voting booth five days later in New Hampshire.

Adding to the volatility are the rules in both states — New Hampshire lets independents vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary, and Iowa's Democratic caucus rules often prod participants to change to second or third choices.

As a result, Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, summed up the mood with four terse words: "The races are fluid."

Wayne F. Lesperance, associate professor of political science at New England College in Hennicker, N.H., finds a general consensus on what will make voters finally pick a candidate.

"At the end of the day," he said, "electability will make the difference."

The discomfort and unpredictability is evident in the numbers and in the chatter in the nation's early voting states.

David Bowen, an independent voter and thus part of a huge bloc that traditionally decides New Hampshire presidential primaries at the last minute, says he has a candidate in mind. He's always liked Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, but he's still mot ready to commit.

Bowen, a Manchester, N.H., sports memorabilia salesman, plans to go on the local television station's website, where visitors can match up issues that matter to them and see which candidate best fits their voting criteria.

"I haven't looked at all the candidates yet," said Bowen. "I like McCain as a Republican, but I want to finish the process and look at all the candidates."

The University of New Hampshire Survey Center has found huge numbers of people like Bowen, still trying to grasp and then finish the process. Though its Nov. 14-18 survey of likely voters put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney significantly ahead of the Republican pack, it also reported that only 14 percent of likely GOP voters said they have definitely made up their minds.

And, it found, while 29 percent are leaning toward a candidate, a whopping 57 percent are still undecided.

The poll saw similar trends among Democrats, as only 24 percent of that party's voters have definitely decided on a candidate, 29 percent are leaning — and 47 percent are still looking.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey in Iowa taken during the same days found a similar bloc of voters still uncertain about their choice.

The reasons for all this instability vary, but the surveys and voter interviews suggest several factors are in play. Among them:

-- The electability factor. "Think about the top Democratic candidates," said Andrew E. Smith, New Hampshire poll director. "They're all about evenly liked by voters. They're all about the same on the issues."

But New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's negatives worry a lot of Democrats, who see her as a potentially flawed nominee before the general election race even begins. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is seen as a fresh face — in some quarters, too fresh.

People want a winner, and they particularly a winner they agree with. That's one reason, said Mike Grady, 60, a Democrat and store owner, that this primary season is "the toughest election since my first election with Barry Goldwater."

-- The independents. Forty-three percent of New Hampshire voters are registered as independents, meaning they can vote in either primary. They're historically unpredictable, and in the past made most pre-election polls look almost irrelevant.

Eight years ago, they flocked to the GOP and gave McCain a big win over President Bush. This time, the betting is they lean to Obama. But that's not yet clear.

Bowen can't say when he may make up his mind, but his view is not uncommon.

"People could be sitting on the sidelines, not even paying attention, not even registered, and in the last few days say, 'Hey, this is important. I'll go vote,'" said former New Hampshire Democratic chairman George Bruno.

Last-minute surges are hardly uncommon in New Hampshire — Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984 and McCain in 2000 all broke from the pack in the closing days and even hours, often fueled by big swings by independents.

-- The Iowa caucus procedure. In the Democratic caucus, a candidate must get 15 percent of his precinct caucus or he gets no delegates and is reported as receiving zero.

What that means, said David Redlawsk, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, is probably that supporters of Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who are trailing in polls, could have to make a second choice.

And surveys suggest that Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards benefit most if that happens.

-- Voter education. People in the two states know they have the opportunity to meet the candidates, or at least question their supporters.

They want to know about issues, and so far see, and are unhappy with, a lot of coverage of the election as sport — full of up and down polls and who's got the best tactics.

A study last month by two journalism organizations found that in the early months of the campaign, sixty-three percent of campaign stories in major media outlets discussed political and tactical aspects of the campaign — and only 17 percent examined candidates' ideas or policy proposals.

One percent focused on candidates' records or past performance, according to the data compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

But a Pew Research Center survey found that 77 percent of those it surveyed in late September said they wanted more coverage of issues.

-- An unusual Republican race. Since 1964, Republicans have generally wound up anointing the logical candidate. This time, though, "there's no one next in line," said Goldford, since Bush can't run again and Vice President Dick Cheney is not running.

Add to that another wild card: Bush is highly unpopular, so it's not clear whether GOP candidates should actively criticize him, not mention him or try to at least woo the small band of Republicans who still like the president.