A Political Force With Many Philosophies

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Fred Wood, a Marietta, Ohio, retiree, voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and John F. Kerry in 2004. In last year's midterm elections, he voted Republican for Senate and Democratic for governor. Is he on the fence for 2008? "You bet I am!" he said.

Mary Welch, a program manager in Appleton, Wis., twice supported Bush for president and voted Republican in last year's hotly contested Wisconsin gubernatorial race. Looking ahead to 2008, she said, "At this point, I tend to lean toward the Republican Party."

Julie McClure, a property appraiser in Bradenton, Fla., voted for Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. She would vote for almost any of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates over any Republican nominee. "Particularly on the war, I side with the Democratic Party," she said.

Wood, Welch and McClure all describe themselves as political independents. Wood is a classic swing voter, while Welch and McClure generally side with one party. They represent two of the five types of independents revealed in a new, in-depth study by The Washington Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

The study is a comprehensive examination of a broad segment of the electorate -- about three in 10 voters call themselves independents -- that is poised to play the role of political power broker in 2008. Independents split their votes between President Bush and Kerry in 2004 but shifted decisively to the Democrats in 2006, providing critical support in the Democratic takeover of the House and the Senate.

The new survey underscores the Republican Party's problems heading into 2008. Fueled by dissatisfaction with the president and opposition to the Iraq war, independents continue to lean heavily toward the Democrats. Two-thirds said the war is not worth fighting, three in five said they think the United States cannot stabilize Iraq, and three in five believed that the campaign against terrorism can succeed without a clear victory in Iraq.

The power of independents could also be felt in other ways next year. The survey found frustration with political combat in Washington and widespread skepticism toward the major parties -- perhaps enough to provide the spark for an independent candidacy by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Seventy-seven percent of independents said they would seriously consider an independent presidential candidate, and a majority said they would consider supporting Bloomberg, whose recent shift in party registration from Republican to unaffiliated stoked speculation about a possible run in 2008.

Strategists and the media variously describe independents as "swing voters," "moderates" or "centrists" who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label.

The Post-Kaiser-Harvard study was designed to probe more deeply into this increasingly influential portion of the electorate: who these voters are, why they remain independent, what they think about major issues and, of particular importance, how they differ from one another.

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

What they share is an aversion to party labels. As Adele Starrs, an editor from Columbia, N.J., put it, "I can't go down either side."

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