More Americans now call themselves independents than Democrats or Republicans. New Hampshire, site of the season’s first presidential primary, is a good example: about 40 percent of Granite State voters were not registered as members of either major political party. Our best estimate is that the share of independents nationally has grown to 42 percent from 35 percent over the past three years. That 7 percent of the electorate is big enough to have changed the outcome of any of the past five presidential elections—and this is not necessarily good news for the GOP.
Barack Obama carried independents by an 8-point margin in the 2008 exit poll—and Republicans carried them by a 19-point margin in the 2010 midterms. Thus GOP candidates may be tempted to believe that the independents’ disaffection with the president, which cost Democrats control of the House, will lead inexorably to a Republican presidential victory in November.
Not so fast. In the first place, Republicans benefited from a low Democratic midterm turnout. According to exit polls, there were about equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters in the midterm, unlike in 2008, when Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 7 percentage points (39 percent to 32 percent). Republicans can’t count on a low Democratic turnout in 2012 and there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans. To win in 2012, it would be enough for Democrats to split the independent vote. Republicans need to carry a clear majority. And there are significant policy disagreements between independents and the Republican base.
Take, for example, a YouGov survey conducted December 22. After the economy (which all voters said was their number one concern), the next most important issues for Democrats were Social Security, Medicare, and the environment. For each, their preference was for the federal government to do more. For Republicans, the next most important issues were the budget deficit, taxes, and immigration; for the first two, they wanted the federal government to do less.
Independents, on the other hand, said health care and education were more important. They tended to worry about what the federal government does in each area, but unlike the Republican base they were not opposed in principle to federal action.
On ObamaCare, for example, independents opposed its repeal 40 percent to 33 percent, according to a November 12 YouGov survey. Republicans favored repeal 62 percent to 23 percent while Democrats opposed it 46 percent to 27 percent. And in an October 29 YouGov survey, independents opposed cutting federal education spending 56 percent to 20 percent while Republicans favored reductions 39 percent to 29 percent. Democrats opposed cutting education spending 67 percent to 8 percent.
Independents are usually closer to Republicans than Democrats on the general issue of the size of government and government spending. In a November 22 YouGov poll, 76 percent of independents favored decreasing federal spending and almost half would include entitlements within these cuts.
On the other hand, they are closer to Democrats on raising taxes: 36 percent of independents favored increasing taxes across the board versus 43 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans.
New Hampshire voter John Hogan totes a cardboard cutout of President Obama to his car after Congressman Ron Paul made a campaign swing through Freedom, New Hampshire, last summer. Hogan described himself as a “fiercely right-wing independent who loves to stir the pot.”
Moreover, in a September 27 YouGov poll, independents displayed overwhelming support for raising taxes on the wealthy. Fifty-five percent of independents favored raising taxes on families earning over $250,000 (versus 43 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans), and 72 percent of independents favored raising taxes on families earning more than $1 million (versus 88 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans).
Among the Republican candidates, Mitt Romney has consistently fared the best among independents nationally. He normally splits the independent vote with President Obama (38 percent to 38 percent in the December 22 YouGov poll). By comparison, Newt Gingrich trailed among independents by 13 points. But to win, Romney would have to do better than split the independent vote.
Neither Obama nor the eventual Republican nominee has the independent vote locked up. How the candidates explain their plans to get the economy moving and the crucial tradeoffs among deficits, jobs, and the safety net will determine how the crucial independent vote goes in the balloting this fall. Preaching to the choir of Republican primary and caucus voters might well be necessary to win the nomination. But independents hold the key in November.