Poll: Who Are the Independents?

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Polling Department
Monday, July 2, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Polling Director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta were online Monday, July 2, at noon ET examine the results of The Post's study -- done in conjunction with Harvard University and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation -- analyzing the bloc of voters who consider themselves independents.

A Political Force With Many Philosophies| Full Poll Document (.pdf file) (Post, July 1)

The transcript follows.


Jon Cohen: Greetings everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today. A bunch of questions are already in, so let's jump right in...


Reston, Va.: Hi, I have a basic polling question. When a pollster for The Post makes a call, do they identify themselves as polling for The Washington Post or do they use some other polling service name? I ask because I find myself wary to participate in polls if I don't recognize the name of the polling agency. I'd be much more likely to participate if I knew I was speaking to someone from a reliable organization like The Post.

Jon Cohen: Good afternoon Reston. Yes, we always identify ourselves. For this poll, all randomly-selected respondents were told it was a survey on current events for The Post and Harvard University. As you suggest, we've found it makes a big difference when people know who is asking questions and why those questions are being asked.


Washington: Will you be making crosstabs available?

Jon Cohen: We make our complete datasets available, usually six months after initial release. This allows us and our academic partners to be the first to delve a little more deeply into the numbers. That said, we've created a new feature called Behind the Numbers that gives us a forum to post crosstabs and other data. Are you interested in seeing anything in particular?


San Francisco: I think the delineation of the independent voter into five identifiable clusters is useful in understanding how many voters are actually "in play" in the 2008 election. I'd be curious to know if there is a geographic breakdown of these clusters -- are the more disengaged indies in the Midwest? Are there more disillusioned in the South?

Jennifer Agiesta: Thanks for your question! There are slight differences between regions, but for the most part they are not statistically significant.

One interesting difference is that the Northeast and Midwest are slightly more likely to have Disguised Partisans than the South and West. Three in 10 independents in the Northeast and Midwest are either Disguised Democrats or Republicans, compared to 22 percent in the South and just 17 percent in the West.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Hello. Is it possible that more people are identifying themselves as independents out of frustration/disappointment with the party(ies) with whom they may have previously identified? If so, how does this affect a potential third-party/independent presidential candidate?

Jennifer Agiesta: We can't speak to trends over time among former partisans, but we did take a look at them compared to those who say they always have considered themselves independents.

Former partisans are more likely to have an unfavorable opinion of the national parties than those who never have consider themselves partisan, and are more likely to say that the two-party system does not do a good job representing their views.

However, this does not mean they won't vote for a party nominee for president in 2008. In fact, they are just as likely to say they prefer the next president to be a partisan as other independents, though they are more likely to hope for a Democrat than a Republican.

Jennifer Agiesta: One other note on trends: We do plan to examine some of these groups going forward, because we do survey independents every time we're out in the field. Because this survey had such a large sample size and a questionnaire focused on political independents, it allowed us to look at groups of independents we hadn't been able to in the past, and former partisans are among those new groups.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: My husband was a Republican and became disillusioned with them. I was a Democrat and question who they really are, as so much of what they do does not reflect the American people. We consider ourselves independents: we might well vote for Hagel over Clinton. That being said, we are horribly disillusioned with what has happened in our country in the past seven years. Maybe being an independent means you don't believe the country is functioning very well anymore and wonder what the future can be for this country. I don't know if we haven't in a sense given up on our country...

Jon Cohen: Thanks for your comments. We've certainly heard from a lot of people since yesterday (on comments and on e-mail) reflecting some of the same sentiments we described in the article. Please keep sharing your thoughts with us.


Mill Valley, Calif.: In which states are independents growing as a portion of the electorate?

Jon Cohen: According to Curtis Gans from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, in nearly all states where people register by party, the "other" segment has been growing faster than either Democrats or Republicans.

For example, in California (my home state) the percentage of people who "decline to state" their party affiliation is now 19 percent. That's about double what it was in the early 1990s.


Dallas: I've heard that so-called independents are really either Democrats or Republicans who want to obscure it. What would be the reason for that? Did you find this to be true?

Jon Cohen: We sure did. In our study "Disguised Partisans" accounted for about a quarter of all independents. And naturally there are two shades of these independents, Disguised Democrats and Disguised Republicans. In many ways these people approach politics as their partisan counterparts; they certainly tend to vote as partisans.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why did you break out the ages only for the disengaged? The Post is intent on making young people look uninterested in politics. What was the age distribution for the other groups? I expect more from The Post. Dare to do better!

Jennifer Agiesta: The Disengaged are one of the few groups where age did seem to be lopsided one way or the other. The Deliberators, Disillusioned and Disguised Republicans are just slightly older than other types of independents, while the Dislocated and Disguised Democrats have basically the same age spread as the population overall.

We plan to examine all five types of independents in-depth on Behind the Numbers, so be sure to check in there for more detail on independents.

Jennifer Agiesta: Behind the Numbers can be found here.


Albany, N.Y.: How do you explain that only three-fourths of independents said they would vote for an independent candidate. Shouldn't this logically be 100 percent?

Jon Cohen: Ah, key distinction here. The political independents we interviewed here are those who said they were "independent" when asked for their party identification are not people who associate with an independent "Party."

(For a longer explanation of the people, see this page.)


South Salem, N.Y.: Are independent voters generally less interested in politics than voters with a strong party affiliation?

Jon Cohen: As a group, independents aren't less interested in politics than Democrats and Republicans. However they are less likely to register to vote, and, importantly, to vote.

However, the premise of this project was that all independents are not alike. And that's true here as well.

For example, the group among Deliberators, 99 percent are registered to vote, and two-thirds of the Dislocated pay "a lot" of attention to what's going on in national government and politics -- that's higher than the high interest level of among Democrats and Republicans.


Wichita, Kan.: Would you define "statistically significant difference"? Thanks.

Jon Cohen: Very good question. Without turning too deeply into it, the term basically means that it's a "real" difference. Sometimes a difference in a poll result could be because of the fact that it's a poll, not a full census of the population. We use this term to indicate that the difference is a meaningful one.


Philadelphia: One of the most important stories of politics since 1994 is the marriage gap. What's the independent demographically like in terms of marital status?

Jennifer Agiesta: Independents are as likely to be married as Democrats and Republicans. More than half say they are married and living with their spouse (49 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans are in the same category) and about one in five independents never have been married.

Within types of independents, Deliberators are most likely to be married and the Disengaged are least likely, but other types of independents are married at about the same rate as the population overall.


Jennifer Agiesta: Thanks to everyone for joining us today. We received far more good questions than we could answer, but will try to answer as many as we can on Behind the Numbers. Thanks again!


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