The many faces of political independents

August 23, 2012

Independents are at the center of American politics, but over six in 10 who identify with that big label look more like partisans than swing voters. The new poll from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation identifies four types of independents: two groups of "disguised" partisans, a set of people who are largely apart from the political process and the smallest group who are closest to true swing voters. Read on for a full rundown of the key differences within the groups based on demographics, values, politics and policies. See where you might fit, explore all the poll questions and detailed results.

Disguised Republicans (31 percent of independents)

Basically a Republican group with nearly eight in 10 leaning to the GOP; most voted for McCain in 2008 and report they plan to vote for Romney this year. They fit the demographic profile of Republicans -- more likely to be white, older, male and attend church regularly -- and align with Republican policy preferences consistently. Still, they maintain their independence with twice as many saying they've always identified as an independent than say at one point they identified as Republican.

 Demographics

  • Mostly male (60 percent), married (71 percent) and older (58 percent age 50+);
  • One third live in veteran households;
  • 35 percent live in suburbs
  • 34 percent attend church at least once a week.

 Values

  • They want more limited government: 65 percent say regulation does more harm than good; 87 percent want smaller government; 69 percent strongly agree government controls too much of daily life;
  • 58 percent strongly disagree that morals need to change with the times.

 Politics

  • 78 percent lean to the Republican party;
  • 25 percent thought of themselves as Republican in the past, but still, 46 percent say they’ve always been independents;
  • Another sign of an independent streak: while 43 percent say they mostly vote GOP in presidential elections, another 45 percent say they split their past votes about equally between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates;
  • 79 percent say they plan to vote for Romney;
  • 67 percent voted for McCain in 2008;
  • 62 percent are politically conservative, 51 percent conservative on social issues, 78 percent conservative on fiscal issues;
  • 72 percent support the tea party;
  • 31 percent say most friends are Republicans vs. 16 percent with mostly Democratic friends and 43 percent whose friends are primarily independents;
  • 51 percent say Republican leaders are taking the party in the right direction, but 59 percent want those same leaders to cooperate with Democrats more often.

 Policy

  • They lean overwhelmingly Republican on who they trust to handle the big issues of the day;
  • Majorities believe abortion and gay marriage should be illegal.

Disguised Democrats (32 percent of independents)

Basically a Democratic group with nearly three quarters leaning to that party; most voted for Obama in 2008 and support him again this year. They consistently side with Democrats on issues, are more secular and urban.

Demographics

  • Split 51 to 49 percent male-female;
  • 18 percent union households;
  • 60 percent urban;
  • 36 percent college graduates;
  • 39 percent attend church seldom or never, 30 percent are atheist, agnostic or no religion;
  • 29 percent with incomes of $100,000+.

 Values

  • Mixed views on the size and role of government: they split 46-45 between preferring a smaller and larger government; 73 percent think government regulation of business is necessary; 53 percent disagree that government controls too much of our daily lives;
  • More hostile to religion in public life than other independent groups: 72 percent say religious groups should stay out of politics, 71 percent want a high bar on separation of church and state.

 Politics

  • 73 percent lean to the Democratic party, but 56 percent say they have always considered themselves independent – a clear indication of their political perspective and why they are not outright Democrats;
  • 45 percent mostly vote Democratic in presidential elections, but nearly as many – 43 percent – say they have voted for Democrats and Republicans about equally in past presidential votes (another indication of their political independence);
  • 82 percent support Obama now, 87 percent voted for him in 2008;
  • 42 percent are liberal politically, 51 percent are liberal socially, but more balanced on fiscal issues (31 percent conservative vs. 27 percent liberal);
  • More of them say their friend groups are dominated by Democrats (40 percent) than independents (31 percent).

 Policy

  • About seven in 10 think abortion and gay marriage should be legal;
  • 62 percent prefer increased federal spending to create jobs, higher than other independent groups;
  • Similar level of support as Democrats for eliminating tax cuts(or raising taxes) on the wealthy;
  • 70 percent favorable ratings of the health reform law;
  • 71 percent support path for immigrant citizenship;
  • 62 percent favor stronger gun control laws.

Detached (24 percent of independents)

These independents have little interest in politics and are relatively disengaged from the political process. Seven in 10 are not registered to vote, and few of those plan to register before the election. Nearly nine in 10 did not vote in 2008. They are by far the youngest of any of the independent groups, more likely to be Hispanic, have less education and lower incomes.

Demographics

  • 41 percent under age 30, 37 percent Hispanic, two thirds male, 57 percent not married or living with a partner;
  • 87 percent have no college degree and 73 percent have incomes of less than $50,000;
  • 29 percent live in the West compared with 23 percent of the adult population;
  • At 58 percent urban they are slightly more likely to be city dwellers than most;
  • 35 percent are not covered by health insurance.

 Values

  • Their values conform generally to the public overall on major political values;
  • They have mixed views on the size and role of government, splitting roughly equally between wanting a larger and smaller government;
  • They reflect the public’s ambivalent attitudes toward a larger role for religion in public life.

Politics

  • 41 percent lean Democratic, 26 percent Republican and 24 percent to neither party;
  • 71 percent are NOT registered to vote and only 27 percent are registered, the lowest level of any of the political groups;
  • Among those not registered, only 34 percent plan to register;
  • They prefer Obama to Romney by 56 to 34 percent;
  • 88 percent did not vote in 2008.

Policy

  • Majorities lean to the progressive side on legal abortion and gay marriage;
  • 58 percent support raising taxes on the rich to cut the deficit, and wide majorities oppose cuts to Medicare and Social Security;
  • They split 45-37 favorable-unfavorable on the new health reform law;
  • 64 percent support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants;
  • 53 percent oppose stronger gun control laws.

Deliberators (13 percent of independents)

The smallest of the independent groups, these are the closest to true swing voters. About half say they do not lean to either party and over six in 10 say they have always thought of themselves as independents. About half say they have voted for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates about equally in past elections.

Demographics

  • Split evenly between male and female;
  • 52 percent are aged 40 to 64;
  • 82 percent white;
  • 26 percent with incomes of $100,000+;
  • 28 percent veteran households;
  • 50 percent have a gun in the house;
  • 40 percent attend church seldom or never;
  • Fewer live in the South and more in the Midwest.

Values

  • Their views about the role of government put them in the ‘small government’ camp: By a three to one margin they favor a smaller government over a larger one;
  • 47 percent say regulation of business does more harm than good;
  • 51 percent say each American should rely on themselves, compared to 41 percent who say government has a role to play in improving living standards;
  • Over six in 10 think organized religion should stay out of politics and two thirds want a high bar between church and state;
  • They closely match the public overall on the question of whether moral values should change with the times;
  • 86 percent agree that people should take responsibility for their own lives and economic well-being.

Politics

  • 49 percent say they do not lean to either the Democratic or Republican parties;
  • 62 percent say they have always thought of themselves as independents;
  • 91 percent are dissatisfied with the way the current political system is working;
  • Eight in 10 or more say the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties are taking the parties in the wrong direction;
  • Majorities say the policies of both the Democratic and Republican parties hurt their family finances;
  • Their 2012 vote intentions are way up in the air: 28 percent Obama, 33 percent Romney and 40 percent other/neither/not sure;
  • They split their 2008 vote 45-44 Obama-McCain;
  • 51 percent say they have voted for Republicans and Democrats about equally in past elections;
  • 47 percent are moderate politically, a higher share than among the other groups of independents. On social issues they split 30-35-29 liberal-moderate-conservative and on fiscal issues they lean conservative (48 percent).

Policy

  • 62 percent want to hold the line on spending rather than spend more in an effort to create jobs;
  • A majority favor legal abortion and gay marriage;
  • Most volunteer that “neither” party does a better job representing their views on taxes, or foreign policy. They feel especially strongly that neither party is working for them on the economy and the deficit.
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Scott Clement | August 23, 2012