Larry Bushnell is one of the undecideds, that rarefied group of Americans who have yet to make up their minds whom to back on 6 November and whose vote could decide who holds the world's most powerful office.

He lives in Ohio, one of the most crucial swing states in the US with its rich crop of 18 electoral college votes. It is often said that as Ohio goes, so goes the US presidency – it has consistently backed the winning candidate in every presidential election bar one since 1944. Within Ohio, Lake County where Bushnell lives is a bellwether, as it consistently cleaves more closely to the statewide voting pattern than anywhere else in the state.

Bushnell has yet another distinction as a voter. He belongs to a demographic group that in modern times Democratic presidential candidates, with Barack Obama as no exception, have struggled to bring on board – white men. In 2008, Obama won just 41% of the total white male vote across the US, a proportion that slumped further to 39% for white men without a college education.

Polls this year show that Mitt Romney has capitalised on the Republican advantage among this demographic in key swing states like Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, bringing his support among non-college educated white men to about 58%. But Romney also knows how high the stakes are in this state – his overall poll rating has trailed behind Obama's, and though he has made up much ground in the past 10 days he will be all too familiar with the chilling fact that no Republican has won the US presidency without having also won Ohio.

The good news for Obama and Romney is that they still have time to win over Bushnell, a 58-year-old retired manager at a jet engine repairs factory, such is his state of indecision. The bad news is that Bushnell detests both of them.

"I've been online checking them out, and I honestly think they both suck. They'll lie to get your vote," he said.

Bushnell plumped for Obama in 2008, but is angry that the president has failed, as he sees it, to deliver on his promise of change. He is equally unimpressed by Romney, who he regards a "coward – he keeps on flip-flopping from one thing to the next".

'I'll vote for the guy I think will be better for me'

The Guardian gathered a sample group of five white male voters, Bushnell among them, in this bellwether area within a bellwether state to explore their mood and motivations. Interviewed outside a Home Depot store in Mentor, a small town within Lake County, they also included Roberto Ciora, 57, who has a message that will be pleasing to the Romney camp.

In past presidential elections, Ciora has always voted for a third-party candidate, because he says he's so disillusioned with both main parties. But for now Romney has his vote, not so much for positive reasons but because he's the not-Obama candidate.

Ciora, a hospital nurse in Cleveland, says he will vote for Romney as a protest against the president. He doesn't like Obama's healthcare reforms – he thinks they will turn America into Canada "where you have to wait months to see a doctor".

He also distrusts Obama on running the economy. "Obama has no business experience – he's a lawyer. Romney is a businessman who could get the debt under control."

Mark Luptak, 39, is leaning towards Romney, though not firmly so. Until recently he ran his own plastering business, but the residential housing market was in such doldrums after the 2008 economic crash that he had to shut it down and take a job in a larger commercial firm.

The home improvement market is as bad as anything he's seen since the 1980s, and though he voted for Obama in 2008 he has little hope that another four years of his administration will drag it back up. "I don't know if anything will help right now. The economy is horrible and I don't think that's going to change for years."

The trade union at the construction firm he has joined is prompting him to vote for Obama. But Luptak says he's minded to swing behind Romney because he thinks a Romney administration would be more friendly to small businesses like the one he used to run.

"Honestly, I don't know. I'm a construction worker – I just go with my gut. I'll vote for the guy I think will be better for me, I'm selfish like that."

Ready to give Obama another chance

The relative faith of Luptak and Ciora in Romney as the best candidate to run the US economy runs in tune with recent polls which have seen the race tightening over the past two weeks in the wake of Romney's confident showing, and Obama's lacklustre one, in the first televised presidential debate on 3 October. Though there is considerable latitude between polls, the Real Clear Politics tracker survey has Obama ahead by just two points in Ohio – a statistical tie.

Obama's continuing, though slim, edge may have something to do with the fact that his re-election campaign has presented him aggressively as saviour of the American auto industry – a message conveyed by an avalanche of TV adverts served in the state. Ohio's resurgent car industry, particularly in northern areas of the state like Lake County where parts production factories are concentrated, has added more than 11,000 jobs since June 2009, helping to bring down the jobless rate to 7.2%, well below the national unemployment rate of 7.8%.

John Ferguson, 22, is thinking that he will probably vote for Obama on grounds that the economy, though far from perfect, will be safest in his hands. He works in a fiberglass factory making underground piping. "I'm one of the lucky ones. I got in somewhere," he said.

He says he is "pretty sure" he'll vote Obama to give him "another chance. When Obama took over we were billions in debt, and it's pretty much impossible to swing that around in four years."

Mark Travis, the fifth member of the group, says he is frustrated and upset by all the political banter this year. But he is firm in his position, having already decided that he will put his cross beside Obama's name on 6 November.

An entrepreneur, aged 30, Travis said he adheres to many conservative principles but just doesn't trust Romney or the Republicans to follow through. "The basic truth is that the Republicans don't deliver on what they promise. Neither do the Democrats, but they are a little more dependable." © Guardian News and Media 2012