- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 10, 2016

Six months, six debates and unprecedented media attention still haven’t been enough for GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, most of whom say they still haven’t completely decided who they’ll back when the voting starts Feb. 1.

The volatility of the field — with polls showing as many as three-quarters of voters uncertain of their choice — has given hope to struggling candidates who say there’s still time to win hearts and minds.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said his campaign’s pre-Christmas telephone surveys found 75 percent of voters in Iowa haven’t made up their minds, and 58 percent of them don’t even lean toward a candidate at this point.

That number could be even higher in New Hampshire, where voters are notorious for keeping their options open until the last minute, according to Andrew Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire poll. Mr. Smith said Iowa, which holds caucuses, draws only the most committed of voters, while New Hampshire’s primary election draws a larger swath of the electorate — including more casual voters.

“In New Hampshire, turnout is far beyond the activists, these are just regular folks who don’t pay much attention to politics,” he said.

Mr. Huckabee and Sen. Rand Paul, two of those struggling to gain traction, said during separate appearances last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that they’re encouraged by how many people are still up for grabs.

“Almost every poll, and people are not reporting this, still has well over half of the people undecided,” Mr. Paul said. “I think we need to balance our coverage with who has organization, who has a following, how passionate the following.”

The actual size of the undecided voter population is tough to pin down. A Des Moines Register poll last month found 66 percent of Iowa voters said they could still be persuaded to change their pick. A CBS/YouGov poll later in the month found just 31 percent said they’ve firmly decided on a champion — though another 42 percent said they were strongly leaning and “probably” wouldn’t change.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Smith’s December survey found only 18 percent had “definitely decided,” with another 26 percent leaning and a full 56 percent still “trying to decide.”

Meanwhile, a Public Policy Polling survey of New Hampshire voters released last week found voters could move in a lot of different directions before the Feb. 9 first-in-the-nation primary.

“Forty-seven percent of them say they could change their minds in the next month about who they’re going to vote for,” said Tom Jensen, director of PPP polling. “So really you still have almost half the electorate up for grabs because so few people are firmly committed to a candidate.”

Phil Cox, head of America Leads, a super PAC backing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, told The Washington Times that late deciders could have more influence over this election cycle than in year’s past.

“This year the pool of undecided voters is most likely even larger than currently modeled. That’s because so many voters are ‘fluid’ in this race,” Mr. Cox said. “They may tell pollsters that they ‘support’ a specific candidate, but they are also telling pollsters they are still open to changing their minds.”

Late breaking voters have played pivotal roles in recent nomination fights.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did not lead a single poll before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, but emerged victorious after winning about half of the voters that made up their minds within a few days of the contest.

Entering the 2008 New Hampshire primary, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was in a dogfight with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the top spot in polls, and won after half of the late-breakers moved in his direction. David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said that undecided voters in New Hampshire could be influenced over the coming weeks by the debates, campaign ads, and world events, as well as candidate visits, and, perhaps most importantly, the results out of Iowa.

“New Hampshire voters are very fickle,” Mr. Paleologos said. “Those undecided voters will break to the top two or three candidates left in the race. So it gives an amazing boost to the people who have visited New Hampshire and the people who have survived Iowa.”

With that as a backdrop, the GOP field is feverishly courting undecided voters, fanning out last week across the early primary states.

As it stands, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is polling first in Iowa, capturing 31.8 percent, followed by businessman Donald Trump, 27.8 percent, and then Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, 11.3 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Trump leads Mr. Rubio by a 27 percent to 13.8 percent margin, followed by Mr. Cruz, 11.5 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 11.3 percent, Gov. John Kasich, 10 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 8.3 percent.

It remains to be seen who is best positioned to capture late-breakers, but there is some evidence Mr. Trump has done the best at locking down his backers. A national NBC News poll released last week showed that 51 percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters are absolutely certain they will vote for him, compared to 36 percent of Mr. Cruz’s backers and 26 percent of Mr. Rubio’s backers.

Mr. Jensen said that his New Hampshire survey found that some candidates look more vulnerable than others.

“Particularly worth watching is that 66 percent of Kasich voters, 60 percent of Christie voters, and 55 percent of Rubio voters say they’re open to changing their minds,” he said. “That suggests there’s still some possibility of the establishment vote uniting more around one candidate in an effort to stop Trump.”

“With this many voters still at least somewhat on the fence, things could look very different by the time primary day in New Hampshire finally comes around,” he said.

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