Independent voters, those with slight or no ties to either major political party, defeated Henry E. Howell Tuesday in his third unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Virginia.

In so doing, they clearly identified themselves as the major electoral force in the state.

According to the findings of a Washington Post statewide poll of 2,130 voters, independents voted 2 to 1 for Republican Gov.-elect John N. Dalton, and accounted for some 40 per cent of the turnout. Their overwhelming support for Dalton was far more than enough to nullify the numerical advantage traditionally held by Democrats over Republicans in the state.

In all, about half the independents who voted for Dalton saif they supported him more because they disapproved of Howell than because they approved of the Republican. Howell and his supporters knew from the beginning of the campaign that they had a huge "anti" vote to contend with among all blocs of voters. They were simply unable to overcome it.

But the independents not only disliked Howell, they apparently felt comfortable with Dalton. They rated him as better than Howell on ability to keep taxes down, on ability to provide honest government and ability to handle racial matters.

On only one question did the independents see Howell as more able than Dalton: the ability to deal with utility firms.

In each of his gubernatorial campaigns, Howell has made a populist appeal for votes by attacking large utilities and corporate power. The Post's poll suggests that Howell would have won handily - if the election had been for utilities commissioner. On that issue alone, he is judged more able than Dalton by a 50 to 35 margin, with 15 per cent seeing no difference between the two.

Independents, and all other voters as well, seem to feel comfortable with Dalton on the ideological level as well. In conducting the poll voters at 19 randomly selected precincts were handed brief questionnaires to fill out, asking them to rate themselves and the candidates on a ideological scale.

A rating of "1" was "very liberal." a "5" was moderate, and a "9" was very conservative. On that scale, all voters polled Tuesday gave themselves an average score of 5.35, or moderate, leaning toward conservative. The placed Dalton on the average of 6.3, slightly to the right of themselves, and Howell at 3.4 or "somewhat liberal."

As expected, Howell received virtually all the black vote. The poll showed him getting 95 per cent of the votes of black Virginians. But at the same time, the poll suggests, the turnout among blacks was not high, and even had the turnout been greater, it would have been insufficient to turn the tide.

Pre-election polls by The Washington Post suggested that blacks account for about 13 per cent of the registered voters in Virginia. In Tuesday's voter poll, 9 per cent of those voting were black. Because the poll was conducted at only 19 precincts, it may not fully reflect the actual proportions of blacks voting. But had an additional 4 per cent of the votes been cast by blacks. Howell would have picked up at best an additional 50,000 votes - and he lost by more than 160,000 votes.

The ascendancy of the independent voter in Virginia follows a nationwide pattern, as more and more voters express dissatisfaction with the two major parties. But, for many years Virginia was dominated by the organization of the late Goc. and Sen. Henry F. Byed Sr., and the nationwide trend toward an increased number of independents appears to have been slower to develop in the state than elsewhere, including other southern states. Now a new pattern appears to be emerging in Virginia, where there is no party registration:

Democrats accounts for about 35 per cent of all registered voters. Republicans for about 15 to 18 per cent. Independents make up the rest of the electorate. Republicans benefit slightly in state contests because a higher proposition of them turn out for elections. But for a Republican to win, he or she must defeat the Democrat among independents. That is what Dalton did to Howell Tuesday.

On the other hand, a Democrat can win even if he or she uses among independents, so long as the margin is slight. There was an example of this fact Tuesday in the lieutenant governor's race.

There Charles S. (Chuck) Robb, the Democrat, defeated his Republican opponent, A. Joseph Canada. Robb didn't win among independents, according to the Post poll. But his margin of loss among them was so narrow - 52-48 - that he was able to coast to an easy overall 54-46 victory.

The poll also showed independents voting for Republican J. Marshall Coleman by a 3 to 2 margin over Democrat Edward Lane in the race for attorney general, Coleman, more than any Republican, was able to draw some support from black Virginians as well.

The poll showed Coleman getting about 25 per cent of the black vote - not very much considering that some black groups supported his candidacy, but a great deal in comparison to Republicans Dalton and Canada. They each got no more than 5 per cent of the black vote, according to the poll.