Republican Mitt Romney’s resounding primary victory in New Hampshire was tarnished by an underlying statistic: More than half of the independents voting in the GOP contest, according to exit polls, supported the second- and third-place finishers, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.
Now evidence is emerging that a portion of those crucial swing voters remains up for grabs or has gone elsewhere since Paul and Huntsman dropped out of the presidential race, instead of getting in line behind the all-but-certain Republican nominee.
Polls have not been conducted on the specific question, but in telephone interviews with the Globe this week, a number of Huntsman and Paul backers said they are undecided or plan to support President Obama, write in Paul’s name on the ballot, or back a third-party alternative.
They cited a negative tone to Romney’s campaign, his shift to the right in the primary, his reversals on some issues, including abortion, and his hawkish stance on foreign policy.
To be sure, a significant number said they would support Romney or were at least leaning in his direction. Those voters cited Romney’s promises to strengthen the economy.
But the overall picture is one of a fracturing, not of consolidation behind Romney, among independents who cast their ballots for his top Republican rivals.
“You look at Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, and they were clearly the two outsider candidates when it came to the Republican Party establishment,’’ said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. “It makes sense their supporters might not be all that thrilled about consolidating behind Romney for the general election.’’
Independents casting ballots for Paul and Huntsman on Jan. 10 combined for around 60,000 votes, or about a quarter of the total primary electorate, according to estimates based on exit polling. So some fraction of those - in defections to Obama, write-ins for Paul, and third-party votes - could number in the low tens of thousands.
“I think we’re talking about a small slice of the general electorate,’’ Scala said. “If Romney fails to capture some of these quirky Republican primary voters, and in exchange gets the Republican base out to vote, that’s a trade-off he will gladly make.’’
In the 2008 general election, Obama beat Republican John McCain in New Hampshire by about 68,000 votes. The margins were closer in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore there by 7,200 votes, and in 2004, when Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts won the state by 9,200 votes.
New Hampshire is seen as a critical state in the 2012 contest, even with just four electoral votes, because the race between Romney and Obama is so close nationally. With partisans on either side firmly entrenched, independents are likely to decide who wins. The last poll by the University of New Hampshire, in April, said Obama led Romney, 51 to 41 percent, among all voters. Of voters registered as independent, Obama led 44 to 42 percent.
Paul, who ended his candidacy this month, has not endorsed Romney. Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Romney a week after his third-place finish in New Hampshire. Through a spokeswoman, Huntsman declined to comment Thursday and would not say whether he plans to stump on Romney’s behalf.
State Senator Nancy Stiles, who was the state chairwoman for the Huntsman campaign and is now backing Romney, said she has not detected any concerted effort among Romney’s camp to win over his former rivals’ supporters.
“I think they are doing it on an individual basis, I haven’t seen a really big push,’’ she said. “I am optimistic that the Republicans will go with Romney and we can pull some of the independents, too.’’
James Merrill, Romney’s New Hampshire campaign director, said the former Massachusetts governor will be aggressively wooing independents and Republicans in the months to come by talking about the economy and fiscal responsibility. He said he did not know whether Huntsman would campaign in New Hampshire on Romney’s behalf.
“Governor Romney’s message resonates with independent voters,’’ he said. “They are pocketbook voters. They care about fiscal issues.’’
Two Huntsman voters whose minds are made up against Romney are Robert and Carolyn Hackwell, of Hopkinton, N.H. They supported Obama in 2008 but were drawn to Huntsman’s message of bipartisan cooperation and what they considered his thoughtfully articulated positions during the 2012 race.
“We just generally liked the cut of Jon Huntsman’s jib,’’ said Robert Hackwell, a retired health care administrator. Even with the former Utah governor’s endorsement of Romney, the Hackwells are going back to Obama.
“We know Romney too well,’’ said Hackwell. “He may have strong family values, and we think he’s sincere about his faith, but in the public square those things are diminished by his ability to say what he thinks people want to hear.’’
Another former Huntsman devotee, Nancy Sheeler, 71, of Lebanon, said she is undecided but leaning toward Romney. Obama’s decision to commit the US military to a long-term presence in Afghanistan angered her, she said.
“I find it distressing that they waste so much time on personal attacks,’’ she added. “There are major issues that really need explication, and I would like to hear both candidates do so in detail. I am still open.’’
Among Paul primary election supporters, several independents who said they will now vote for Obama said they also voted for Obama in 2008. They were attracted to the Texas congressman, they said, because of his dedication to upending the status quo, his libertarian views on social issues, and his promise to withdraw US troops from posts around the world.
A carpenter from Francestown, Adam Evans, said he will vote for Paul as a write-in, as a protest vote.
“I’m just fed up with them all,’’ he said.
John Vermillion, an IT supervisor for an insurance company who lives in Strafford and backed Paul, also is choosing “none-of-the-above’’ when it comes to the major parties. His choice will be Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and GOP candidate who is now running as the Libertarian Party’s candidate.
“He may wind up as a spoiler, but from a position of conscience, I can’t vote for either [of the] two major candidates,’’ he said. “That’s where I have to put my vote, where my conscience is.’’
Christopher Rowland can be reached at email@example.com. He can be followed on Twitter @GlobeRowland.