Game of Inches #2 — Likely Independent Voters: Who they are? And what do they think?

(For the first part of this series, click here)

The US presidential election in November will be a close one.  Many poll watchers, myself included, see this one as a nail bitter which will be won at the margins.  I still strongly believe that Obama will be the victor (link) but details and not generalities will carry the day.

In elections of this type, success is typically defined by a percentage point here, another there.  This puts a special premium on targeting and winning over those undecideds constituencies who have not chosen their champion.  One such group is likely independent voters who will probably show up at the ballot box, but do not lean strongly towards Republicans or Democrats.  Without a doubt, both the Romney and Obama camps will be giving this segment a very close look this electoral season.

This naturally leads us to some questions.  Who actually are likely independent voters?  Where do they stand on the issues?  Are they more conservative?  More liberal?  Or somewhere in between?  And finally, how do they perceive Obama and Romney on the issues?

To answer these questions, I will be analyzing over 60,000 interviews, conducted for Thomson Reuters between January 5 and July 2, 2012.  To do this, I look at likely independent across a number of demographic, political and values questions.

Here at Ipsos we define independents as those respondents who both declare themselves as independents with an initial question AND who, after a second follow-up question asking if they lean Republican or Democrat, remain independent (for more detail on our method, look here).  Our definition of independent is much more restrictive than other polling firms.  We “push” our initial independents because, electorally speaking, many behave like regular Democrats or Republicans in their voting behavior, and shouldn’t be considered true undecideds.

Independents, in the final tally, only make up a small portion of the electorate.  Indeed, they only comprise 13% of the general adult population and 11% of the likely voting population (for further discussion of the impact of likely voter models, look here).  Perhaps more importantly, looking towards the general elections, independents are less likely to vote (57%) than either Republicans (79%) or Democrats (73%)—this trend also holds historically as well.  Yes, independents might only make up a small portion of the population, but in a game of inches, every one counts.

So how do likely independents stack up on the issues against Republicans and Democrats?  Here we look at key political questions including voting intention and other electoral issues (full frequencies in appendix).

Overall, independents fall somewhere between Romney and Obama on the issues with slight exceptions.  On voting intention, healthcare, and gay marriage, independents give a slight lead to Democrats.



In contrast, they lean more Republican on the economy and immigration.  Even more striking is that across all match-ups, a majority of likely independent voters are undecided on who is strongest on the issues.

So where do likely independents fall on political values?  More liberal?  More Conservative?  Or somewhere in between?

Once again, overall, likely independents are between Democrats and Republicans—neither liberal, nor conservative.

However, this is not the whole story. Indeed, independents are closer to Democrats than Republicans on social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion and marijuana legalization. However, on deficit reduction, immigration, and healthcare, likely independents tend to be more conservative.

Finally, how do likely voters stand up on key demographics compared to their Democratic and Republican counterparts?  Again, likely independent voters are smack in the middle.

Independents, indeed, are more white and older than Democrats and less white and younger than Republicans.  They are more male than both Republicans and Democrats however.  Additionally, when looking at where they are from, likely independent voters, while from all over the United States, are found in larger numbers in New England.  Possible Rockefeller Republican orphans?  This deserves a more thorough evaluation.

So what does this all mean?

First and foremost, a majority of likely independent voters (53%) are, on average, still undecided on the core issues of the day.  They give neither Obama nor Romney the lead.  This puts a special premium on the relative ability of each presidential campaign to reach out and convince this group that their side is most credible on the issues.

Second, likely independent voters are very much middle of the road Americans—not too liberal, nor too conservative.  They could even be termed that ‘sensible’ center that many pundits wax philosophically about.  The analysis here shows that they actually tend towards mixed solutions.  For instance, 62% believe that the best solution to the deficit is some mix of tax increases and spending cuts (see appendix).  Practically speaking, independents are looking for commonsensical ‘mixed’ solutions, not radical ones.

Third, likely independent voters are more liberal on social issues, such gay marriage, abortion, and legalization of marijuana.  Here the evidence indicates that such ‘wedge issues’ might have a positive effect if used effectively by Obama’s campaign. Here, again, moderation not radicalization should be the tone of any message.

Fourth, on the key issue of the day, the economy, likely independent voters lean slightly towards Romney but 53% still remain undecided, indicating that the battle over the optics on the economy has just begun.  Indeed, Romney will continue to attack Obama’s credibility on the economy, making the case that he would be a better economic custodian.  In contrast, Obama will push the narrative that no one with a track record like Romney’s at Bain should be trusted to take care of the average American.

Fifth, likely independent voters are dead center on the issue of healthcare reform.  Ultimately, healthcare seems much more an issue that will mobilize the Republican base than one to pull in Independents. However, as we have seen on other issues, likely independent voters want moderation on all such policies.  Romney’s ability to paint ‘Obamacare’ as extremist might win points.

Finally, not all likely independent voters are the same.  Yes, they may be a small segment of the electorate (11%) but there are distinct clusters within this segment. I will detail these clusters in a future post.