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."
Already Influential -- and Growing
Independents are already a significant force in American politics, and their numbers are growing: In most recent polls, independents outnumbered Republicans -- but not Democrats -- in the population.
Fifty years ago, independents accounted for about a quarter of all adults. Today, that proportion is between three in 10 and four in 10, depending on the survey. In most states that have party registration, independents or those who decline to state a party preference are the fastest-growing segment of voters, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
Independents mirror the population in terms of age, income and education. But they are disproportionately male. A majority of independents are men, while a majority of Democrats are women and the GOP is typically divided evenly between men and women.
Independents also are more secular than the overall electorate. Four in 10 in the new study would like to see religion have less influence on politics and public life than it does now. Almost a fifth say they have no religion.
Brent Page, a retired social studies teacher from Aurora, Colo., described himself as a Protestant and "semi-churchgoer" who thinks religion should be kept out of politics. "I believe in the separation of church and state," Page said. He said religion should play a role in home and family but should be "out of politics."
Although independents are generally seen as occupying the political center, their growing discontent with Bush has pushed them increasingly toward the Democrats.
In the 2006 elections, independents split 57 percent to 39 percent for the Democrats, the largest margin either party has received from independents in a congressional election since national exit polls began measuring the House vote in 1976.
Three-quarters of independents in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard study described themselves as either dissatisfied or downright angry at the policies of the Bush administration. Almost half, 48 percent, called Bush the worst modern president.
A major reason then and now for the tilt toward the Democrats is opposition to the Iraq war. Among the two-thirds of independents in the new survey who said the war is not worth fighting, most hold that view "strongly."
Starrs, the New Jersey editor, once considered herself a Republican and voted for Bush in 2004. She now calls herself an independent, and she said the war was "the biggest factor" in her shift. Starrs said she opposed the war from the beginning but set aside those misgivings in 2004 and voted to reelect the president.
"At the time, I ranked other issues higher," she said. "This election, I do not. Iraq is the number one issue for me in this election."
Independents also are far closer to Democrats than to Republicans in their assessment of the national economy. Sixty-three percent of Republicans called the economy good or excellent. Just 35 percent of independents agreed.
Given those attitudes on the overriding issues, it is not surprising that independents expressed more positive feelings about the Democratic Party. When asked to rate the national parties, 55 percent viewed the Democrats favorably, while 41 percent gave the Republicans positive marks.
Independents broadly favored the Democrats on Iraq, health care, global warming, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, corruption in government, managing the federal government, and dealing with the deficit. They gave the Democrats a narrower advantage on illegal immigration, taxes and the economy.
They rated the Republicans higher only on the campaign against terrorism.Rejecting the Party Line
Like self-identified Democrats and Republicans, political independents represent a disparate coalition of Americans who disagree on many things -- but they all cling to their independence.
"I see weaknesses in both parties, and even more so in the last 15 years," said Donna Young of Sun City, Ariz., whose father was a Republican and whose mother was a Democrat. "I don't believe you can do justice to democracy if you only look at one particular party candidate."
The new survey probes why many Americans prefer to call themselves independent. Three-quarters said voting on the issues, not a party line, is a "major reason" they claim the label, while seven in 10 said a prime factor is that they vote for individual candidates, not parties.
About half said a major reason for their independence is that they agree with Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others, and that they are not comfortable with either party. Four in 10 said not wanting to put a label on their political views is a principal reason for calling themselves independents. Fifteen percent said they are independent because they are simply not very interested in politics.
Independents stand in stark contrast to Democrats and Republicans, who in today's polarized environment typically support their own party's candidates about 9-1. About half of independent voters have cast ballots about equally for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, and about six in 10 have divided their votes evenly in state elections.
"I'm an independent out of frustration," said Len Ungar, a retired educator from Henderson, Nev. "I was a Republican for 40 years, then I became a Democrat, and now . . . I vote independently."
Dissatisfaction binds most independents. Barely 50 percent saw important differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. Six in 10 said the two-party system fails to address the issues that are most important to them, and when asked which party better represents their views on a dozen issues, about two in 10 volunteered that "neither" does. Three in 10 said the political system would get better if there were no parties.
Discontent with contemporary politics is widely shared across the political spectrum, but it peaks among independents. On a range of questions, they are consistently less hopeful and more frustrated with the system than are Democrats or Republicans.
Fifty-eight percent described themselves as pessimistic about American politics, compared with 49 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans. Just 23 percent called themselves proud; 56 percent said they are angry.Five Ways to Be Independent
Five categories of independents emerged from the analysis of the survey results:
"Deliberators," who are classic swing voters.
"Disillusioned," who are acutely upset with politics today.
"Dislocated," who are both social liberals and fiscal conservatives.
"Disguised," who are partisans on the left and right who behave almost identically to Democrats or Republicans.
"Disengaged," who generally sit on the political sidelines.
Unlike most other independents, the Deliberators are generally satisfied with the political system and have positive views of the two parties. Two-thirds have voted about equally for Republican and Democratic candidates, making them perhaps the most significant group of swing voters. At a time when other independents lean more heavily toward the Democrats, the Deliberators are a prime Republican target.
The Disillusioned are highly dissatisfied with the political system. Nine in 10 said the two-party system does not work for them. Many volunteered that "neither party" better represents their views on important issues, including more than seven in 10 who said so about their position on Iraq. They lean heavily Democratic, but they are also among the most open to an independent candidacy.
The ideologically Dislocated are far more likely to say that the Democrats better represent their views on social issues, while a majority asserted that the government in Washington is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. They are also the least religious of any of the five groups.
Disguised partisans generally walk and talk like Democrats or Republicans -- sometimes with even more passion. They reject party labels but usually back one side or the other.
"I generally don't support Republicans; I definitely support Democrats the majority of the time. I'm an independent because I like to keep an open mind," said Larry Parker, a day-care center director in Montpelier, Vt.
The Disengaged make up about a quarter of all independents and typically have little or no interest in politics. They are the least likely to be registered to vote, the most likely to have at most a high school education, and the youngest of any group. Four in 10 are younger than 30.
Leaning Left but Staying Open
As a whole, independents already have reshaped the landscape for 2008 because of how they voted in 2006, and in the opening stages of the campaign, they remain strongly tilted toward Democrats.
There are more Disguised Democrats (15 percent of independents) than Disguised Republicans (9 percent), and even among those less closely aligned with one of the parties, Democrats enjoy clear advantages.
Two-thirds of all independents would seriously consider supporting a Democratic presidential candidate, while fewer than half said they would seriously consider voting for a Republican.
Melissa Stevenson, a homemaker from Three Rivers, Mich., voted twice for Bush but voted for Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm last year. As Bush's second term nears an end, she is leaning toward the Democrats. "I tend to think it's good to go back and forth," she said.
Fred Wood, the Ohio retiree, said he was very optimistic when the Democrats took over the House and Senate in January, believing that the Republicans had blown it over the past six years. Now he questions whether the Democrats are up to the job.
"What have they done for the good of the country?" he asked. "Nothing that I can think of."
Ultimately, many independents will base their votes on their perceptions of the candidates, not the parties they represent, and the survey shows wide variations in their early impressions.
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) draws the fewest negatives of any Democratic candidate, followed by former senator John Edwards (N.C.). New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most polarizing of the three leading Democrats, but independents are least drawn to a Gore candidacy.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) are the most acceptable Republicans among independents. Clear majorities said they would consider voting for either. That is not the case for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.).
Independents put former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) in a league of his own: Two-thirds said they would definitely not vote for him for president.
One question for all the candidates is whether independents will reveal an opening for someone to mount a challenge to the major-party nominees.
About half of independents said they prefer the next president to be a Democrat or a Republican. But around three in 10 said they prefer an independent, and about two in 10 said they either do not know what they want or lean toward an existing third party.
A majority of independents said they would consider backing Bloomberg, while a third said they would definitely not. That level of support is not enough to get New York's mayor to the White House, but it could provide a base for the start of a serious challenge to the two dominant parties.
Cathy Senko, an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, backed independent Ross Perot in 1992 and now hopes that Bloomberg will run. "I think he did a fantastic job in New York," she said. "I would vote for him."
Whether Bloomberg is in the race or not, the competition for independents' support will be far more intense in 2008 than it was four years ago. Having flexed their muscles in 2006, independents have guaranteed a hearing from all the candidates between now and November 2008.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.