But many are neither centrist nor moderate. And many don’t really swing back and forth from one party to the next with any regularity. About a third are indistinguishable from Democrats, and three in 10 are indistinguishable from Republicans, at least when it comes to their voting patterns.
Those who are both genuinely independent and active participants in the political process constitute only a sliver of the overall electorate — about 5 percent, according to the new survey. And among that group, just one in three say they are firmly settled in their choice between Obama and Romney.
Still, even this small share of votes could prove decisive in a campaign that has been tightly fought in its initial months. But given the fact that such voters are few in number, the two campaigns are spending more time mobilizing party loyalists than on persuading the undecided. Some of those loyalists, however, call themselves independents.
Four kinds of independents
The Post-Kaiser survey identifies four distinct groups of people who identify as political independents. About a third of all independents share the bulk of their political opinions with Democrats, regularly vote Democratic and overwhelmingly back Obama’s reelection bid. A similarly large share sides with the GOP on most issues, sharing similar values, attitudes about government and voting patterns. Most support Romney.
About one in four adults who call themselves independents are more or less detached from the political process. Most are not registered to vote, with few saying they plan to enroll before Election Day. These tend to be younger and heavily Hispanic, and have much less education and far lower incomes than others who describe themselves as independents.
That leaves about one in eight who are “deliberators” — quintessential swing voters. Most say they’ve always considered themselves to be independent, and fully half say they’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans about equally in presidential elections. In fact, as a group they divided almost down the middle in 2008 between Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Look at almost any poll — including Post and Kaiser Family Foundation surveys — and the views of independents typically fall close to the results for the overall population. That reinforces the importance of understanding where independents sit, but it also conveys an impression that they are all middle-of-the-road voters. What this misses is that on many issues, large numbers of independents have attitudes that are largely indistinguishable from one side or the other.
Overwhelming majorities of “disguised Republicans” say they trust the GOP over the Democrats on the economy, health care, the budget, taxes, social issues and foreign policy. Most of these independents would prefer abortion to be illegal in all or most circumstances, and they oppose same-sex marriage. They say the policies of the Democratic Party hurt their families’ economic interests. About eight in 10 say they plan to vote for Romney in November, with most saying they “definitely” back him.