CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire's nickname is "the Granite State" but there's nothing solid about its political landscape.
Independent voters have been the reason in recent presidential elections.
Close to 40 percent of registered voters don't align themselves with the Democrats or the Republicans and, every four years, these fickle Americans cause the state to swing from the left to the right and back again when choosing a presidential candidate. This tiny Northeastern state – populated by Boston suburbanites in the south to rural residents in the far North Country – offers just four Electoral College votes of the 270 needed for victory. But in an era of close races in which every vote counts, presidential nominees of both parties have had the state on their target lists for two decades.
New Hampshire, where 33 percent of voters are registered Republicans and 28 percent are registered Democrats, has been shifting from reliably Republican to Democrat-tilting bellwether since Democrat Bill Clinton shattered years of Republican dominance by winning it in 1992.
Today, the fast-growing towns in southern New Hampshire typically vote Republican as does the rural north, while the seacoast city of Portsmouth, state capital Concord and university towns like Durham, Keene and Hanover tend to lean Democratic. Democrats still have an edge in voter registration in the state's two largest cities, Manchester and Nashua, though Republican congressional candidates prevailed there two years ago.
The entire state also is peppered with independents like Joe and Thyra Galli of Portsmouth.
The couple voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Republican Jon Hunstman in this year's primary but have since parted ways politically. She circled back to Democrat Obama, while he's voting for Republican Mitt Romney.
Joe Galli, who retired last year from his job directing a transitional housing program, said while he is not particularly enthusiastic about Romney, he is extremely disappointed in Obama, the first candidate he ever liked enough to make a campaign donation to.
"In 2008, I was hopeful that he was a different type of candidate," he said. "I was hopeful that based on his take as an outsider, he could go in and implement some changes to bring both parties together, end the gridlock and move some issues forward."
Galli, 63, made up his mind in June after Romney clinched the nomination. His wife was on the fence until late August, hoping Romney would provide details during his convention speech about what kind of budget cuts he'd make or how he'd pay for corporate tax breaks.
"I was sure he was going to come out with a logical platform and he was just going to lay it out for everybody, and he still hasn't done it. It's too late now, I don't trust him," said the 60-year-old retired teacher. "Basically, it's coming down to, I'm going to vote for the devil I do know as opposed to the devil I don't know."
Most independents tend to make up their minds late.
In a WMUR Granite State Poll that showed Obama ahead last week, 12 percent of undeclared voters said they are still deciding, compared to 8 percent of Republicans and just 2 percent of Democrats. In the past, independents have been anti-incumbent and anti-status quo, but they appear now to be swinging toward Obama, said Dante Scala, chairman of the University of New Hampshire political science department.
"They could swing back, but if they've made up their minds, that doesn't leave much room for Romney," he said. "This isn't the kind of state anymore where you can just win the Republican base and that's that."
The state had long been considered safe Republican ground until Clinton won it twice. In 2000, George W. Bush narrowly prevailed. But in 2004, New Hampshire was the only state to reject Bush after voting for him four years earlier. Democrats then swept the governor's office, both houses of the state Legislature and its two congressional seats in 2006.
Obama won the state in 2008, but Republicans have made huge gains since then, re-taking the congressional seats and winning commanding majorities at the Statehouse two years ago.
The 2010 results suggest that New Hampshire Republicans do well when they're in line with the national party, Scala said. That year was all about fiscal issues and the scope of government, which plays well in a state that tends to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, he said.
Demographic trends, particularly migration, also have helped shape New Hampshire's electorate.
New Hampshire is a mobile state, with considerable turnover of its residents. Contrary to the stereotype of deep-rooted Yankees, only about a third of the New Hampshire population over the age of 25 was born in the state, one of the lowest percentages in the nation.
Both young voters and migrants are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats, according to UNH Survey Center polls. And while overwhelmingly white New Hampshire is missing a key element of Obama's coalition – minorities – their absence is partially offset by a large proportion of highly educated, professional voters who have not been as hurt by the economy in the last four years as other groups, Scala said.
New Hampshire's unemployment rate is well below the national average, thanks in part to well-paying, high-tech jobs that have lured college-educated people to the state.
But a recent report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies warned that the forces that have driven the state's prosperity for decades – population growth, increased productivity and a resilient economy – have largely run their course. Job growth has slowed, housing prices remain flat, and more people are moving out of the state than moving in.
That makes it likely that the political landscape will shift yet again by 2016.