Poll: Who Are Virginia's Independent Voters?

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Polling Department
Monday, July 16, 2007 2:00 PM

Washington Post Polling Director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta were online Monday, July 16, at 2 p.m. 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. This discussion they focus on the findings from Virginia's independent voters and how they'll influence the state's political future.

A transcript follows.


Jennifer Agiesta: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us today as we take your questions on the Virginia portion of the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey, we've got a lot of questions to get to, so let's get started.


Washington, D.C.: Are Virginia independents heavy on Catholics or mainline protestants? James Webb dramatically improved on Chuck Robb's performance among white Catholics. They voted for Bush, but they also opposed the same-sex marriage amendment. So, it seems Catholics and independents may have meaningful overlap.

Jennifer Agiesta: Virginia independents, like the state's residents overall, are more likely to be Protestant than anything else, and they are Catholic in about the same proportion as Virginians as a whole. One striking difference is that about one-fifth of independents say they have no religious affiliation, compared to 11 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans.

According to the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey, independents in Virginia are 47 percent Protestant, 16 percent Catholic, 9 percent Christian non-Protestant, 6 percent are another non-Christian religion and 18 percent say they have no religious affiliation.

Catholic voters, partisan or not, have been a swing group in American elections for quite some time, but in Virginia, they have remained fairly conservative. According to exit polls, Virginia Catholics voted for Bush in 2000 by a 24-point margin when overall results in the state had an 8-point margin and in 2004 gave the president a 27-point margin compared to the 9-point margin he earned statewide.

It will be interesting to watch whether their shift towards Webb in 2006 holds or if they return to the Republican party in 2008.


Alexandria, VA: How will these voters affect the 2008 election? Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since LBJ in 1964, but my "gut feeling" (thank you Sec. Chertoff) suggests Virginia will vote Dem in 2008 or certainly by 2012.

Jon Cohen: Good afternoon, certainly if the election were held today, the race for Virginia's 13 electoral college votes would be competitive. We wrote about this in our first story from the poll (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/06/AR2007070601975.html).

Of course, there's a long way to go, and the outcome may depend in part on whether the state's senior senator, John Warner, opts to run for re-election. He's yet to declare his plans.


Ashburn, Va.: Is there a correlation between Independent voters and Independent Candidates or do the independent voters tend to pick one party candidate over the other?

Jennifer Agiesta: About half of independents say they have voted for an independent or third-party candidate in the past, more than double the percentage of either Democrats or Republicans who say the same.

They are also more open to an independent candidate for president in 2008, 74 percent would seriously consider voting for a non-party candidate, compared to about half of either Democrats or Republicans.


Arlington, Va.: Would it not be fair to characterize Independent voters as lacking a coherent political philosophy and easily swayable by the latest media emphasis and "bad news"?

Jon Cohen: People who call themselves political "independents" don't share a single political identity (that's what motivated this Post-Kaiser-Harvard project), but that doesn't mean that they lack coherent political beliefs.

Although they all reject a party label, they don't all eschew ideological ones. In this Virginia poll, 35 percent of the state's independents call themselves conservative on political matters, 23 percent liberal and 39 percent moderate.


Loudoun Co.: I must admit I found this whole thing a little confusing -- as a registered voter in Virgina since 1980, I don't recall ever being "classified" as a member of any party ... I thought all Virginia voters were "officially" Independent, until/unless they signed a statement saying otherwise as part of a particular Party's primary process? With the extremely low turnout in such events, I would take that to mean that most registered voteres remain on the rolls as Independents?

Jennifer Agiesta: Thanks for your question, Loudon. While some states do allow voters to register with a party, Virginia is not one of them. So the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll analyzes self-identified independents.

We asked respondents, "Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Democrat, a Republican, an independent or what?" and used those responses to determine independents, Democrats and Republicans.


Not Michael Bloomberg, Honest: Is there any idea how many independents wish to remain unaffiliated with one of the two parties yet they still basically support the two party system, and what proportion wish to see an alternative to the two party system?

Jon Cohen: Mr. Mayor, thanks for joining us!

The past is a good, but not perfect gauge on what will happen to how people relate to the two major political parties, but in this poll, more than six in 10 of the Virginians who call themselves independents said they've *always* thought of themselves that way.

On the two-party system, 58 percent of VA independents say it doesn't do a good job of representing issues that are important. Fifty-seven percent say the system would get better if it were easier for people to run as independents.

There's much more on this in the full poll. Check it out (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/independents/va-topline_20070708.pdf).


Virginia Beach, Va.: I believe that voters can be conservative or liberal on a variety of issues (i.e. financially conservative, liberal on education). Do you believe that independent voters are afraid to put themselves on the political spectrum (either conservative or liberal)? Why has being a Republican or a Democrat become a bad thing in America today?

Jon Cohen: Hello VA Beach, there's no evidence that independents are "afraid" to answer questions, however political. Many have strongly-held positions about the key issues of the day, including the #1 issue ... the war in Iraq.

That said, about six in 10 VA independents say "I don't like putting a label on political views is a reason they call themselves independents; 38 percent say that's a "major reason." Could fear partly motivate the rejection of labels? Sure, but so could disposition or a variety of other factors. There's always more to know!


Alexandria, Va.: Referring to a previous Post article/poll about independents, how many Virginia independents are what have been described as "disguised partisans?"

Jennifer Agiesta: Describing oneself as a political "independent" does not mean the same thing to everyone who uses the term. As in our national survey, Virginia's independents can be divided into five types of independents, which we will analyze in-depth in a future article.

Disguised Partisans, a group whose members call themselves independent but act more like Democrats or Republicans, make up a little more than a quarter of Virginia independents, 18 percent are Disguised Democrats while 9 percent are Disguised Republicans.

For those interested, the article analyzing types of independents nationally and others in this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/independents.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the population growth of northern Virginia turn the whole state into more of a swing state by 2008 or 2012?

Jon Cohen: If it's not true already, certainly the growth we've seen in Northern Virginia could put VA up for grabs in 2012. NoVa voters already make up about 30 percent of the state's electorate, and their views on many issues stand in stark contrast to those elsewhere in the state. As the region continues to grow, the state's political landscape will keep on changing.


Lynchburg, Va.: What's the geographic distribution of independents in Virginia like? Are there a lot in Northern Virginia?

Jon Cohen: Thanks for the question, Lynchburg. Yes, there are a lot of independents in NoVa. In that part of the state, 35 percent of all adults call themselves independents. In Lynchburg-Southside, 23 percent say they're political independents.


Independent's-ville, Va.: Just a comment -- I am really excited that Virginia is tending more towards the purple and even blue. It's great to think that the Old Dominion could be a battleground state in the '08 elections and that our votes might really "count." Also I think it's just generally good for voter engagement and participation when elections are truly up for grabs.

Jon Cohen: So just where is "independent's-ville?" Wherever you are, I think you're right, people like to cast meaningful votes. That's probably one of the reasons turnout was relatively high in 2004, the neck-and-neck 2000 campaign showed just how crucial every vote can be.


Alexandria, Va.: Is this really significant as to (1) party-identification (or the absence thereof), or more as to (2) geography within Virginia?

It certainly looks like NoVa's voters, and those in the immediate vicinity of Richmond, are much bluer than the state as a whole was say 10 or 15 years ago, with voters in the rest of the state simply being a little less red. Any thoughts as to whether it's really fair to apply the party-cohort measurement rather than the geographic one?

Jennifer Agiesta: Virginia's political portrait has certainly been impacted by changes in where people live, but at the same time, nationally we find that party identification is the strongest predictor of how a person will vote and what positions they take on key issues. There is no reason to believe the same does not hold true in Virginia. Virginia's independents, as Jon noted above, are spread throughout the state.

As to Northern Virginia and Richmond turning blue faster than the rest of the state, we will take a look back at previous Post polling to see what changes have occurred regionally. Be sure to look for it soon on Behind the Numbers, found here: (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/behind-the-numbers/).


Fairfax: Why independent? Well, I wanted to vote in a Dem primary or caucus and so I signed up with the Dems. Now I can't keep up with the junk mail I get asking for my money. Wish I had stayed independent, if only to stay off those mailing lists!

Jon Cohen: Primary rules vary a lot state to state, and some, like yourself, opt out of picking a party to have the flexibility to vote in either party's selection process. That's one reason more than four in 10 voters in New Hampshire register as independents, and why "decline to state" registrations have spiked in California since the Golden State changed its primary election rules.

What we're focused on here, however, is people who consider themselves independents, not those who are registered that way.

As far as those mailing lists go, ugh. But with so long to go before November 2008 (a mere 476 days away!) and so much $ to raise, get ready for more requests.


Alexandria, Va.: Twenty four percent of independents answered "none" or "other/non-Christian" for religion, much more than for either party. Considering that the two parties seem relatively close in religiosity does this mean candidates will back off from pandering to the religious in 2008? (I certainly hope so -- I'm sick of it!)

Jennifer Agiesta: Virginia independents are less religious than Virginia partisans, and our survey suggests that even for partisan Virginians, when considering presidential candidates, religion is less important than other factors.

More than half say it is absolutely essential for a presidential candidate to be "honest and trustworthy," and four in 10 say the same about "someone who is a strong and decisive leader," however just 15 percent say it is absolutely essential for a candidate to have "strong religious faith."


Jon Cohen: OK, thanks so much for joining us today. Apologies for not getting to all the questions. We'll look forward to the next time.


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