Granite State remains a toss up, polling data suggest

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BOSTON – With judgment day less than three weeks away, unexpected surges in Granite State popularity among the many candidates are fueling speculation that the presidential frontrunners of both parties aren’t exactly locked in, and that the state remains in play.

John Kasich came in a solid second in the Republican field, trailing only Donald Trump, in a voter survey released Tuesday by American Research Group, an independent New Hampshire-based polling firm. According to ARG’s data, the Ohio governor’s popularity skyrocketed in just one week, climbing to 20 percent in Jan. 15-18 polling from 14 percent in Jan. 7-10 telephone interviews of 600 likely Republican primary voters. Trump, the billionaire businessman, gained just 2 percentage points in that period, to 27 percent from 25 percent. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Yet a CNN/WMUR-TV poll released Wednesday puts Kasich 20 percentage points behind Trump, with Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, in second.

Meanwhile, the top pollster for Democrat Hillary Clinton on Wednesday ripped the CNN/WMUR poll which shows the former secretary of state trailing Vermont’s Bernie Sanders by 27 percentage points in New Hampshire. Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, told Andrea Mitchell of the MSNBC cable network on Wednesday that the poll “has been an outlier each time it came out.”

Benenson also described the New Hampshire primary, slated for Feb. 9, as “volatile” in nature.

“We’ve always said New Hampshire is going to be very close,” Benenson added. “Any time there is a New Englander on the ballot in New Hampshire the races are highly competitive.”

“If you go back to 2008, the last time the primaries took place – President Obama was an incumbent in 2012, obviously – but 50 percent of the voters in New Hampshire made up their minds in the last week and 20 percent of them made up their minds on the last day,” Benenson said.

Framed against what polling firms have said about their recent struggles to accurately forecast big-time races, Benenson may be onto something. Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, penned a New York Times article in June in which he lamented the effects of technology on polling.

“Election polling is in near crisis, and we pollsters know,” Zukin wrote, noting how polls failed to predict the 2014 midterm Republican wave of success and all but declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection bid dead. He won.

“Two trends are driving the increasing unreliability of election and other polling in the United States: the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys,” Zukin said.

In New Hampshire, independents, or voters who aren’t affiliated with any party, can vote in the party primary of their choosing on Election Day, same as in Massachusetts.

A significant percentage of Granite State voters are not only undecided about their candidate, but also their political party, according to the results of a WBUR-FM poll released Thursday in Boston. WBUR noted that 44 percent of New Hampshire voters are independents, surpassing the membership in both political parties.

“And a lot of them, about a third, still haven’t made up their minds,” Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the WBUR survey, told the Boston public radio station. “That to me is the thing that could still cause the biggest change.” 

Results from the WBUR poll show that the favorites among New Hampshire independents are Sanders, a U.S. senator, and Kasich – the only two major-party candidates with net positive favorability ratings from independents. Trump was rated unfavorably by 65 percent, while Cruz wasn’t far behind at 62 percent. Clinton had the third-highest unfavorable ranking, at 59 percent.

Still, Granite State polls are notoriously fickle.

“You shouldn’t believe in polls in New Hampshire until the weekend before the election, and I’ll tell you that as a pollster,” Zachary S. Azem, a University of New Hampshire Survey Center researcher, said in a Wall Street Journal report published in a Jan. 5 .

Trump may be dominating voter surveys in New Hampshire, but the UNH Survey Center on Wednesday offered a caveat: 

“Despite leading in polls, Trump remains the candidate New Hampshire Republicans are least likely to vote for,” the center said in a statement. “When asked which candidate they would NOT vote for under any circumstance, 30 percent of likely Republican voters say they would not vote for Trump.”

Besides, the center said, most Granite State voters remain uncommitted. “Only 31 percent of New Hampshire Republican Primary voters say they have firmly decided who they will vote for in the primary.”

The center based its assessment on the same CNN/WMUR New Hampshire Primary Poll dismissed as an “outlier” by Benenson, Clinton’s top strategist.

The same poll does echo Benenson’s opinion about Granite State voter volatility, as the poll indicates almost half of Democratic primary voters also remain undecided.

New Hampshire’s taste for retail politicking – mixing with voters in conference rooms, on the streets, in stores and other more intimate settings, such as homes – is well-known. Some candidates take it more to heart than others, though.

“I live here, man,” Kasich told the crowd at an Exeter town hall-style meeting earlier this month, just after notching his 50th such gathering in the state, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. “I’m like a little engine that keeps coming along.”

Barely two weeks later, Kasich is the talk of the state campaign, based on the amount of media attention he’s getting.

“John Kasich rises in New Hampshire,” a Bloomberg News headline announced Thursday.

“For John Kasich, a new wind in New Hampshire,” a headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer declared.

“Kasich is finally getting his moment,” the Boston Globe asserted.

The Enquirer report noted that Kasich’s town hall-style meetings this week “got attention from nearly every political journalism outlet in the country,” counting 12 video cameras and high-profile TV news personalities such as CNN’s Dana Bash and Bret Baier of Fox News, at an event in a community hall.

But others in the GOP have also had their time in the New Hampshire campaign spotlight, only to fade. Dr. Ben Carson trailed only Trump in mid-September, then was eclipsed by former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina by early October. In late November, Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, was firmly ensconsed behind Trump, who has led in voter surveys since August, according to a average. Then came Kasich.

With 19 days left to go before voters engage in the only poll that really matters, Kasich shows no sign of letting up, holding four New Hampshire events Thursday and with the same number are planned for Friday and again on Saturday, according to cable news network NECN’s website. While other Republican contenders are in the state, few have packed their schedules like Kasich has.

On Thursday Kasich netted an endorsement from Fergus Cullen, the 2007-2008 New Hampshire Republican Committee chairman. In a statement, Cullen pointed out that he has attended at least 20 town hall-style meetings organized by various candidates and has hosted parties at his home for four different candidates, including Kasich.

“I didn’t prejudge anyone and like most New Hampshire voters, I didn’t rush into a decision,” Cullen said. “Gov. Kasich has an unmatched record of winning elections and of advancing a conservative agenda, not just talking about it.”

Speaking to Baier of Fox News on Wednesday, Kasich acknowledged the unpredictable nature of New Hampshire’s voters:

“We’ve got momentum here and we’re rising,” he said. “Most of the people still haven’t made up their mind, or a big chunk hasn’t, and they’ll probably be making up their mind on election. It’s really remarkable.”