PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Independents are a finicky and fickle bunch. They are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country, with an overwhelming majority saying things are badly off track. Social issues do not concern them. Many of them voted for President Barack Obama.
And now, this critical voting bloc — which makes up roughly 45 percent of the New Hampshire electorate — is about to take center stage. If the Iowa contest exposed the conflicted mood and sharp divisions within the GOP, then New Hampshire will offer a broader snapshot of a hard-to-pin-down sliver of the electorate that has an outsize impact on elections, particularly in this swing state.
“I’m disappointed in the unemployment rate and the economy, so I’m open and I’m listening,” said Julie Gagne, 52, an independent who voted for Obama in 2008.
Now, Gagne is planning to vote in the Republican primary Jan. 10. As part of her decision-making process, she last week went to see Mitt Romney at an event outside a chowder shop.
A Republican-leaning voter who broke from the party only to back Obama, Gagne soured on the president last year, after losing her job. She said she was upset to see Obama focus on health care instead of the economy. Gagne went to see Romney in hopes of personally connecting with the man who she believes will probably be the eventual Republican nominee.
But to her dismay, Gagne found Romney “choreographed and deliberate and stiff and staged,” she said. She said she most likely will vote for Romney in the primary but reserve judgment about the general election. “I guess I’ll just keep an eye on the economy and just watch how the campaign plays out,” she said.
That sentiment is reverberating across New Hampshire and the country, as independents express their dissatisfaction with both the president and the alternatives. Their unhappiness could not matter more: Nationally, the candidates will be competing for the roughly one-third of the electorate that is considered independent and remains up for grabs.
It is not at all clear yet how Obama and his eventual Republican opponent will play with this exceptionally disgruntled group of voters, who have expressed greater displeasure with Washington than their partisan peers.
Independent voters — more than eight in 10 of whom are unhappy with the country’s political system — are more deeply unhappy with Washington than are Democrats or Republicans, and they’re far more apt than others to blame both sides in Congress.
Fully 39 percent of independent voters in Washington Post-ABC News polling said they’re “angry” about the way the federal government works, higher than the numbers among Democrats and Republicans.
They are no less critical of the particular candidates. While Obama appears to have disappointed many independents who supported him in 2008, Romney has hardly locked them down. Even though Romney holds a double-digit lead in recent New Hampshire polls, his support is weaker among independents, who have also flocked to Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.
“Romney’s efforts to reassure the right wing have made him suspect here” among independents, said Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth University government professor. Instead, Fowler said, Ron Paul has flourished because of his libertarian bent and antiwar views.
In part, independents are on display because of New Hampshire’s primary voting rules. Unlike Iowa, where voters had to declare their allegiance to the Republican Party to participate in the caucuses Tuesday night, voters without a party affiliation are permitted to vote in either party’s primary here. Without a competitive Democratic primary in 2012, even Democratic-leaning independents might be inclined to cast their ballots for Republicans, regardless of how they intend to vote in the general election.
Most participants in the Republican primary will be true Republicans, or Republican-leaning independents, said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. But about 10 percent will be independents or Democratic-leaning independents, offering a glimpse of how an important swing group is shaping up. (Registered Democrats are not permitted to vote in the GO P primary in New Hampshire.)
At a town hall meeting hosted by Huntsman last week, several independent voters who backed Obama in 2008 said they were exploring their options and keeping an open mind. Even Obama’s supporters expressed interest in the Republican primary, saying that they were unsure the president will be able to win in 2012.
“I think it is probably 50-50 that the next president is a Republican, so I think it’s very important to get it right,” said John Nelson, 49, an Obama supporter.
Karen Cahillane, a psychotherapist from Concord, said she had voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to again. “But I’m listening,” Cahillane, 58, said.
Cahillane, a cancer survivor, said a top priority for her is health care. Her 30-year-old son lacks health insurance, and she worries what will happen if he falls ill. She said she has been disappointed in Obama’s ability to rein in Congress and push his agenda forcefully. “I read his book ‘Audacity of Hope,’ and I thought, he gets it,” she said. “I think every president’s hands are t ied more than they think they are when they are up here stumping.” Her weariness extends beyond Obama, however, and though she is open to voting for a Republican, she says she will probably back O bama again.
Ginny Tirrell, 53, a seamstress at Globe Manufacturing where Huntsman made a campaign stop Wednesday, said four years ago she voted for Obama, “unfortunately.” This year, she is planning to vote in the Republican primary and is debating between Huntsman and Paul. But Romney is not on her radar screen, she said. “Something about him just turns me off,” she said.
The candidates have been attracting more politically mixed crowds here than they did in Iowa. Among the dozens of voters who attended a Newt Gingrich town hall meeting in the central New Hampshire town of Laconia on Wednesday afternoon were a number of independents, as well as some registered Republicans who voted for Obama.
Kim Trask, 57, a retiree, is technically unaffiliated but has voted Republican since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She is considering backing Gingrich or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — but not Romney.
“I think he’s a little bit too moderate for me,” she said. “It’s going to take more than that to get this country back on track.”
A few rows back sat Bob and Judy Chase, retirees who are Republican and Democratic respectively. In a show of their political independence, however, Judy wore an elephant in one ear and a donkey in the other.
Both are intrigued by the Republican candidates now descending on their state, but both approve of Obama’s leadership and may vote to reelect him.
“He was a little naive, but I think he’s done a fairly good job,” Bob Chase said. “Better than I expected.”
Bob Chase said he believes Obama has been more effective than he gets credit for, citing his stepped-up use of unmanned drone aircraft in combating terrorism overseas. Judy Chase described herself as socially liberal and supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights, but said she is troubled by the tendency of people like herself to vote exclusively on those matters. So the couple have another candidate on their check-out list: Rick Santorum.
Polling analysts Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.