NASHUA, N.H. — Chuck Bailey hasn’t decided whom he’ll vote for in next year’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, but the choice could come down to electability.
Bailey, a Democrat, said picking a candidate who can deprive incumbent Republican President Donald Trump of a second term in the White House will be a key factor in his decision.
“One of the things that’s on everyone’s mind is who can beat Trump,” said Bailey, 78, of Amherst. “We need a change of leadership and direction, for the sake of the country.”
Two dozen Democrats have entered the primary to take on Trump — a historically high number of contenders that includes seven senators, four members of the House and two sitting governors.
While the primary is more than eight months away, many Democratic hopefuls have visited the Granite State several times already, holding town hall meetings in community centers and media briefings in coffee shops in an effort to get out their message and win early support.
New Hampshire’s early primary gives the nation’s 10th-smallest state by population outsized influence on presidential politics. Flashy national campaigns with multimillion dollar advertising budgets turn into shoe-leather operations where candidates walk through neighborhoods, knock on doors and press the flesh.
And recent polls show that many in New Hampshire have yet to make up their minds.
“New Hampshire voters are notorious for keeping their options open until the very last minute,” said Andy Smith, a political science professor who heads the University of New Hampshire’s survey center. “They won’t be deciding who they’re going to vote for until the months or weeks before the primary.”
Smith said about 40% or more of the state’s voters routinely make up their minds just a few days before the election.
Another 10-20% wait until Primary Day to decide.
Ruby Shabazz, a Nashua Democrat, said she is mulling the crowded field, looking for a candidate who can defeat Trump next year.
“Right now, I’m just listening and learning about the candidates,” she said. “There’s a lot of similarities between them, but I want to make sure I pick the right one.”
Shabazz, who is black, said she is concerned about criminal justice reforms, gun control and women’s health issues, and she thinks Trump’s presidency has set race relations back decades.
“As a woman of color, I’m really concerned about how people are being treated across the country,” she said. “I’m hoping to learn about how the candidates would address that.”
Tom Harris, 73, a Hollis Democrat, said he wants to see a change in the White House but also hasn’t zeroed in on the candidate he’ll back in next year’s primary.
“I’d like someone who is a little more honest and has a vision for where we are going as a country,” he said. “Not just someone who leads by reaction, like the current president.”
Harris is a retired computer designer who expressed concern about jobs, education and immigration reform. He has a Hispanic grandson and is outraged at the treatment of Central American immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and the Trump administration’s short-lived policy of separating children from their families, which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.
“My great-grandparents were refugees,” he said. “You don’t put people, children, who are coming here fleeing violence and poverty, in cages. That’s a cruel and criminal act.”
To be sure, Trump has solid support from a majority of Republicans in the state, recent polls show, despite drawing a primary challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.
“Well, he’s doing what he said he would do, so he’s got my vote again,” said Tim Gauge, 35, a construction worker from Derry. “He’s making the country great again.”
Gauge, an independent who votes Republican, said he supports the president’s tough stance on illegal immigration, especially his pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“The Democrats don’t seem to get it that we’re being invaded,” he said. “We need to build that wall.”
Trump won the Granite State in the 2016 Republican primary with 35 percent of the vote but lost it to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election by about 2,000 votes.
A University of New Hampshire poll in February found roughly 80 percent of New Hampshire Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, which is consistent with national polling.
Weld faces an uphill climb to win the party’s nomination and few believe Trump will lose on the Republican side of New Hampshire’s presidential primary next year.
And Weld’s challenge isn’t likely to get support from the Republican National Committee, which has already voted to express its “undivided support” for Trump as its 2020 nominee.
New Hampshire’s so-called “undeclared” voters, or independents, make up about 41 percent of the state’s more than 1 million registered voters. The battleground state had 284,174 registered Republicans, 307,360 Democrats and 415,316 independents as of Dec. 17, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden, who jump-started his candidacy with a recent visit to New Hampshire, with a commanding lead over the other 23 Democrats in the race.
Forty-four percent of Democratic voters surveyed for a recent Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll said they are most likely to vote for Biden in the primaries. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came in second place with 14 percent, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., places third with just 9 percent and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., placed fourth with 5 percent, the poll found.
When it comes to the candidate who voters think has the best chance of beating Trump, 40 percent of the poll’s respondents picked Biden.
Smith said the problem for low-polling candidates like Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., isn’t that they’re unpopular. It’s that they’re unknown.
“With so many people in the race, it’s going to be that much harder for them to win attention,” he said.
Bailey, of Amherst, has been to several campaign events so far and expects the pack of Democratic hopefuls to thin out before the primary rolls around next year.
“There’s a few candidates that are really strong, but others who are honestly never going to make it,” he said. “For me, it’s still too early to decide.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.