MANCHESTER, N.H. — After more than a year of being inundated by ads, rallies, handshakes, and telephone calls, most spin-weary New Hampshire residents are nursing a lingering, late-stage case of political TMI — too much information. Way too much.
They made up their minds, weeks or months ago, and many of them are waiting for Election Day like a prisoner waits for parole.
But then there are the undecideds, that minuscule slice of the New Hampshire electorate who — after all the noise, all the appeals, all the commentary — have yet to hear the magic words that will nudge them to vote for President Obama or Mitt Romney. In their stubborn indecision, they may have an outsize impact on the outcome in a critical swing state.
“I’m not exactly sure what more I need to know,” said Deb Carter, 39, a mother of three from Merrimack who has yet to make up her mind. “It’ll probably come right down to Election Day, until I’m standing right there.”
Often, undecideds do not lock on to single issues or the parties’ broad pitches. For some, the economy is the overriding concern, but preserving social services is important. For others, reducing the deficit is key, but women’s issues also have equal weight. And for more than a few, the decision will not be made until they have entered the booth on Tuesday, alone with their thoughts, staring at the names of two men who have competed relentlessly for their vote.
When the choice is made, according to voters interviewed for this report, the reckoning will come only after long and often frustrating deliberation.
“They both seem to be fairly decent and reasonable individuals,” said Kevin Staley, 54, a philosophy professor and director of humanities at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “At some point, I’ll sit down and commit to a decision.”
Undecided voters have dwindled to the low single digits, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducts the WMUR Granite State Poll. As recently as September, that figure was 16 percent; in February, 33 percent.
“It just shows that there are not that many votes left to fight over,” Smith said. The battle for those holdouts will go to “the campaign that is better able to turn out their less-political supporters,” Smith said.
In a last-ditch effort to energize supporters and sway the uncommitted, Romney is holding rallies on Saturday at Portsmouth International Airport in Newington and Monday at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester. Obama will appear with former President Bill Clinton on Sunday in Concord.
The latest Granite State Poll, released Oct. 22, showed Obama leading Romney in New Hampshire, 49 percent to 41.
Officials from the rival campaigns said the undecideds remain a big target during the final, frantic push, even if their numbers are shrinking. Although New Hampshire has only four electoral votes, they could be critical in a close national race.
“We are talking to them this weekend, that’s for sure,” said Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the state Romney campaign. “Over the last few days, we’ve had a massive get-out-the-vote effort through door-knocking. That’s where we see we can convince voters.”
Obama’s team is also emphasizing face-to-face contact as the campaign in New Hampshire reaches its climax.
“This election could come down to just a few votes, where even one conversation could make the difference between moving forward with President Obama or falling backward with Governor Romney,” said Harrell Kirstein, a campaign spokesman.
For Carter, who manages a flooring store in Milford, the pain of losing a job last year has made her reconsider her 2008 vote for Obama. When the Lowe’s Home Improvement store closed in Hooksett, where Carter had worked, one of the collateral casualties was her confidence in the stability of American business.
“When you work for a large corporation like that, you think you’re set for life,” Carter said.
Now, four years after Obama’s promise of “hope and change,” Carter is looking for “something completely different” in the White House. But that “something,” she acknowledged, is not easily defined.
“They say the economy has improved, but it’s been so gradual that you can’t tell. Maybe nothing’s changed,” Carter said.
She is wary of Romney’s stances on women’s issues, including his willingness to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. But she also suspects that many people on government assistance do not pull their weight.
“I would like Obama to get more hands-on about how welfare is perceived — that if you cry a little bit, you’ll get what you want,” Carter said. “I don’t want to have new taxes, but I also don’t want social services to be cut. I just don’t want them to go to people who are going to sit around and watch TV.”
The barrage of political ads has been unavoidable but also persuasive in a fluid, frustrating way. Carter said she finds herself agreeing with an ad on any of the campaign’s hot-button topics, only to reconsider when she sees the opposing one. The roller-coaster effect has made her decision even more difficult.
Staley, the college professor, said the pervasive negativity of campaign ads has interfered with a rational assessment of the candidates. “If all these ads are true, that’s a problem because there’s nobody left to vote for,” Staley said.
He switches back and forth between differing media sources, sometimes toggling every five minutes from liberal-leaning MSNBC to conservative commentary on Fox News. “I’m not political in nature. I don’t take sides and root for them,” Staley said.
The result is an attempt at dispassionate analysis.
“When I look at the economic picture, a lot of what Romney wants is predicated on a rapid growth of the economy,” Staley said. “If it were to expand, a lot of what he wants to do would come true. But are Romney’s policies the sort that would bring about this economic renewal? The answer I have to that is I’m not sure.”
Obama’s platform, Staley said, “seems to me to say, ‘Look, we’re in for a slow recovery. There’s not much I can do about it.’ ”
For many undecideds, voting is serious business. Apathy is not part of the equation.
Joan Sabatini, 85, of Salem, N.H., counts herself among the uncommitted who nevertheless are committed to voting. Sabatini’s interest in politics has waned since her husband’s death last year, but she will travel to the polls in hope of some last-minute insight.
“I’m not so sure of Romney. He changes his mind too often. But I’m not happy with Obama, either,” said Sabatini, who worked as a Salem elections supervisor for 30 years. “I think we’re in trouble.”
As Sabatini worked the thrift-shop counter at Salem’s senior center, dozens of women and a handful of men played cards, built jigsaw puzzles, or padded upstairs to the fitness room. A congressional candidate had just made the rounds at the center, and at least one patron had reached the tipping point.
“I’ve had it with politicians,” she said in disgust after he left, waving her hand in reproach.
Soon, the quadrennial exercise will have ended. But until Tuesday, some work remains.
In Milford, inside the Cardoza Flooring store, Deb Carter was heading toward Tuesday, adrift in the middle, unsure where she would make landfall.
When asked what could possibly sway her now, Carter shrugged slightly. “I won’t know till I hear it,” she said with a smile. “They might be saying, what nerve can I touch that I haven’t yet?”