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Independent voters shifting to favor Republicans, study finds

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 4:03 PM

If Republicans take control of the House or Senate in November, they probably will owe their majorities to a massive shift among independent voters, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

Four years ago, Democrats won control of both chambers in large part because of strong support from independents. Independents that year split, 57 percent to 39 percent, for Democrats in votes for House candidates. The new poll finds that, among likely voters, independents favor Republicans over Democrats by 49 percent to 36 percent.

If that margin holds, it would represent one of the largest shifts in sentiment among independents in decades. There was a 10-point falloff in Democratic support among independents between 1990 and 1994, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

The Pew survey highlights the ways that attitudes among independent voters have changed. Four years ago, 29 percent of those who called themselves independent identified themselves as conservative. Today that has risen to 36 percent.

Three-quarters of independents say they're dissatisfied with conditions in the country, up from two-thirds who held that view four years ago. Independents trust the government less today than they did four years ago, with 82 percent now saying they trust government only sometimes or never. Four years ago that was 71 percent. More independents also say they are angry with government in Washington today than was the case in 2006.

Perceptions of the two parties have shifted even more dramatically. Forty percent of independent voters say they trust Republicans to improve the job situation, compared with 35 percent who trust the Democrats. That is a 16-point move to the Republicans in four years.

There's been an even bigger shift on the question of which party independents trust to handle the deficit. Four years ago just 18 percent said Republicans; today it's 44 percent.

Four years ago, independents had a more favorable impression of the Democrats than Republicans, by 46 percent to 36 percent. Today they see the parties comparably, with 45 percent saying they have a favorable image of Republicans and 44 percent saying they have a favorable view of Democrats.

Driving attitudes among these voters are perceptions of President Obama. Among independents, 50 percent disapprove of Obama's job performance compared with 39 percent who disapprove. Two-thirds of those who disapprove say they plan to vote Republican in November, while 71 percent who approve of how he has handled his job say they expect to vote for the Democrat.

The Pew survey also found that those who disapprove of Obama's job performance appear more motivated to show up in November. And more independents say their vote will be against the president than for him, although half of independents say the president will not be a factor in how they vote this fall.

Antipathy toward Obama is not as high as the negative feelings toward then-President George W. Bush in the 2006 midterms.

The Pew survey is based on interviews with 2,816 registered voters between Aug. 25 and Sept. 6, with 2,053 considered most likely to vote in November.

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