12.09.11

Independents Are Growing in Number and Drifting Away From Obama

Voters who refuse to ally themselves with either political party are the people who decide elections. Their allegiances are fleeting and their numbers are growing.

Studies released this week about key swing states confirm that the numbers of voters who identify themselves as independent are growing, that Barack Obama is facing a serious challenge in battleground states, and that swing voters will almost certainly determine the outcome of the 2012 election.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, for instance, found that Newt Gingrich currently tops Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates by double digits among potential Republican primary voters in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The survey also showed that in the crucial swing state of Ohio, Obama is narrowly trailing both Gingrich and Romney by one point—within the margin of error, but certainly worrisome for the president’s reelection team.

All three states have large independent voter blocs. And in all three swing states, the study revealed that right now, the race is extremely close and that Obama is vulnerable.

In Florida, Romney has a narrow 45 percent to 42 percent lead over the president, but Obama leads Gingrich there 46-44.

In Pennsylvania, which has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 and which Obama carried by 10 points in 2008, things are just slightly better for Obama. The president leads Romney there 46 percent to 43 percent and has an 8 point margin over Gingrich, 48 percent  to 40 percent.

In these three states included in the Quinnipiac poll, in answer to the question, “Do you feel that Barack Obama deserves to be reelected?” more people said no. In Florida the no’s outweighed those in favor of Obama’s reelection 51-44. In Ohio the figure was 53 percent to 42 percent and in Pennsylvania it was 49-47.  

“I am totally undecided,” says Ryan Ayers, an independent voter who lives in Canton, Ohio and who voted for John McCain in 2008. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Ayers says he is “unhappy with Obama’s performance even though he was tossed into a horrible mess.”

As far as the Republican candidates, he thinks they should “stop slinging mud and stick to the issues—I don’t know what to expect from any of them.”

Nationwide, independent or unaffiliated voters account for just under 40 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center, more than either Democrats or Republicans.

This key segment represents a growing plurality of voters who especially because of their numbers in swing states and their fickleness in recent elections will almost certainly determine the outcome in 2012.

A study (PDF) released this week by Third Way, a Washington think tank that promotes centrist policy and political ideas, found that the number of independent voters is growing.

“Independent registration is on the rise … and they will be the deciders in 2012,” says Michelle Diggles of Third Way, one of the authors of the study.

Third Way looked at state voter-registration figures and recent exit polling in 12 battleground states including Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to determine how the numbers of independent voters are increasing.

‘They’re rented, not owned. They’ve been swinging wildly in recent elections.’

Third Way found that independent voter registration is up in swing states while both Democratic and Republican registration was either flat or down. In Colorado and North Carolina, the proportion of independents has increased by about 9 percent since 2008.

Third Way also claims that independents will make up a bigger portion of the electorate next year than in any election since 1976, when they comprised 34 percent of the voters.

Based on their voting behavior over the past two election cycles, it’s almost impossible to predict how independents will go this time around except to say that they will be critical to the election outcome.

“They’re rented, not owned,” Diggles says. “They’ve been swinging wildly in recent elections.”

Obama’s approval among independents was 62 percent when he took office compared with 39 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

In 2008, Democrats won independents by eight points but lost them by 19 points in 2010, a 27 point shift among independent voters.