Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect state for Senator Eugene McCarthy. He was from Minnesota.
FREEDOM, N.H.- Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney holds a relatively narrow lead among independents - a critical voting bloc whose members remain largely undecided.
Romney’s lead among independents is seven percentage points, compared with his commanding 22 percentage point lead among all voters planning to cast ballots in the GOP primary Jan. 10.
That difference is especially important to Romney because he has portrayed himself as able to win the favor of independents and moderates crucial to victory in November.
“Part of the logic of Romney’s campaign is that he’s best able to appeal to independents who will be decisive in the general election,’’ said Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor. “If he can’t pull the votes of independents in New Hampshire, then that assumption becomes questionable.’’
Undeclared voters - who are commonly called independents, and who account for more than 40 percent of New Hampshire’s registered voters - don’t appear poised to derail Romney’s longtime lead over his rivals in New Hampshire. With 39 percent of the overall vote in the UNH Survey Center/Boston Globe poll released Sunday, he had a comfortable margin, and significant support among the independents. Among those independents who have declared their allegiance, 32 percent say they back Romney.
But the 51 percent of independents who remain undecided in the poll still have the ability to shape the race. If they were to splinter among the other candidates, they could erode Romney’s margin, and thus his momentum, and determine the winners of second, third, and fourth places.
The emergence of independent voters is keenly evident in a town like Freedom.
This hamlet on the Maine border was incorporated 180 years ago by a band of newcomers who, the story goes, were chafing under the conservative leanings of long-timers. They declared independence and called their new town Freedom.
Today’s inhabitants retain an aversion to partisan commitment. More than half of Freedom’s 1,025 voting residents are registered independents, among the highest rates in the state, and a point of pride for many.
“They like to think, not be dictated to,’’ said the town clerk, Libby Priebe.
This year, such thinking has led Freedom independents to uncertain junctures. Interviews around the town center and Freedom Market, a convenience store and gun shop in one, turned up no decided independents.
“Right now, in my mind, the Republicans are in total chaos,’’ said John Wolter, a 65-year-old independent who moved to his summer home in Freedom and works for a company that makes websites for private schools.
He voted for President Obama last go-round and will probably do so again, but will also vote in the Republican primary.
Bill Sindoni, 59, a semiretired construction worker originally from Woburn and also an independent, said no one is offering what he would like to hear, which is a lift of taxes from everyone 65 and older.
“I’m not leaning toward anyone - but, well, maybe Ron Paul,’’ Sindoni said, echoing a common refrain among independents.
Paul fares better with independents in New Hampshire than with registered Republicans. According to the UNH Survey Center/Boston Globe poll, 25 percent of independents favor Paul, placing him in second place for them behind Romney.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich and Paul are tied for second among all voters at 17 percent.
Independents also favor Jon Huntsman, with 16 percent saying they would vote for him, compared with 6 percent among registered Republicans and 11 percent overall, the poll showed. The poll’s overall margin of error was plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said independents are more likely to vote for a candidate like Huntsman or Paul because the men are viewed as outsiders to the mainstream Republican Party.
Huntsman, as a moderate, is capturing support from independents who favor the policies of the Democratic Party. Paul, who espouses a libertarian view, is favored by independents who are unaligned with a party and the most apolitical.
In the end, though, independents’ ability to boost Huntsman or Paul may be limited because turnout among Democratic-leaning and unaligned independent voters in a Republican primary tends to be lower than among Republican-leaning independents, who now favor Romney.
Indeed, higher turnout among independents who lean toward the political party holding a primary helps explain why independent voters historically have voted the way of registered-party voters, Smith said.
An exception was 2000, when independent voters in the Democratic primary backed Bill Bradley while registered Democrats backed Al Gore, according to exit polls. On the Republican side that year, independents backed John McCain, as did registered Republicans.
“They helped make up the magnitude of McCain’s win, but they didn’t determine his win,’’ Smith said.
Yet other political observers note that it was just that - the magnitude of McCain’s win, delivered by independents - that elevated his candidacy.
“The New Hampshire primary is an expectation game. So in that sense the independents shaped the perception of what the totals meant,’’ Fowler said.
Fowler pointed to the 1968 Democratic primary in which President Lyndon Johnson won, but only seven points ahead of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Johnson opted not to seek reelection.
If Romney pulled out a meager win, she said, “you could see Paul or Gingrich looking for crowing rights: ‘We came close to upsetting Romney on his home turf.’ ’’
Perhaps the biggest wild card among independents is their unreliability. Independents, even those who say they are decided at this point, are liable to change their minds.
Fowler conducted a study of New Hampshire voters in 2000 and found that between the late fall and the election, 70 percent of voters had changed their minds, most especially, independents.
“What happens in this very volatile environment is oddball events end up playing a disproportionate role,’’ Fowler said.
Should Paul take a convincing first place in the Iowa caucuses - where some polls have him first - the win could strengthen support among New Hampshire independents, particularly those already leaning toward him, said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.
If they voted for Paul in large enough numbers to vault him into second place, Gingrich would be pushed down to third, or perhaps fourth place - delivering a blow to him as he heads into the South Carolina primary.
“Then all the Republicans in South Carolina will say, ‘Gingrich is done and it’s either Romney or Paul, who I don’t like at all,’ ’’ Scala said. “Then it’s a big plus for Romney.’’
On the other hand, Smith pointed out that New Hampshire Republicans are more moderate than Iowa Republicans and have rarely followed the lead of the caucuses - doing so only twice in recent memory, in 1992, when George H.W. Bush won the New Hampshire primary after winning the caucuses and in 1976, when Gerald Ford won both.
In Freedom, in a measure of independents’ capriciousness, conversations tend to slide to who ought to be running. One storeowner, who asked not to be identified for fear liberals would boycott him, said he is leaning toward Gingrich. The country, he said, needs a strong conservative. But given his druthers, he said, how about David Petraeus, the CIA director and former Army general, for president?
“You don’t have to be a politician to make things happen,’’ he said.Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.