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Independent Voters and the President: Myths and Realities

A Commentary by Alan Abramowitz

The importance of partisanship in contemporary American politics is widely recognized. Among the public as well as political leaders, party divisions run deep and it is increasingly clear that the arrival of a new President in Washington has done little to change that fundamental reality. Not only are Democrats and Republicans in Congress sharply divided over President Obama's legislative program, but recent national polls have revealed a deep split in evaluations of the President's performance within the public. According to data assembled by the Pew Poll, the 61 point difference in approval of President Obama's job performance between Democrats and Republicans in early March was the largest for any recent president after such a short time in office, including George W. Bush.

The sharp partisan divide in public evaluations of President Obama's performance has led several influential political commentators, including the National Journal's Charlie Cook and Amy Walter and the Washington Post's Dan Balz, to point to independent voters as the key to the President's ability to maintain his political effectiveness. With Democrats and Republicans dividing along party lines, they argue that Mr. Obama's overall popularity, and therefore his influence in Congress, will depend on the views of the large group of "non-aligned" independents. Thus far the President has maintained a fairly high level of support among independents and that has kept his overall approval rating above 60 percent in most national polls. But in their view, any significant slippage in support among independents could prove highly damaging to the President. As a result, according to the Post's David Broder, Mr. Obama must remain sensitive to the concerns of independent voters even if this requires him to modify or delay some of his policy goals such as reforming health care or imposing a carbon cap trading system.

On one level, this argument is clearly correct. Since neither Democrats nor Republicans enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, independents hold the balance of power in the electorate. However, the assumption that independents are non-aligned--that they are free thinkers who have no predisposition to support one party or the other--is inaccurate and misleading. Political scientists have long recognized that most self-identified independents are far from non-aligned. When pressed, the large majority of independents readily acknowledge that they lean toward one party or the other and these leaning independents think and act very much like regular partisans. So-called "pure independents," those with no party preference whatsoever, make up a small minority of the public and an even smaller minority of voters since they turn out at a much lower rate than either party identifiers or leaning independents.

According to the 2008 American National Election Study, independents made up 40 percent of eligible voters and 33 percent of actual voters in the presidential election. However, in response to a follow-up question, 79 percent of independent voters indicated that they usually felt closer to one party or the other, with 44 percent leaning toward the Democrats and 35 percent leaning toward the Republicans. Only 21 percent of independent voters expressed no party preference and this group made up only 7 percent of the electorate. This was almost identical to the results for other recent elections. Pure independents made up only 8 percent of voters in 2000 and only 7 percent of voters in 2004.

The evidence in the following table from the 2008 American National Election Study shows that independent Democrats and Republicans had dramatically different opinions on major issues and that their opinions were very similar to those of regular Democrats and Republicans. Independent Democrats were quite liberal in political outlook--on some issues even more liberal than regular Democrats. The large majority supported abortion rights, gay marriage, and government-sponsored universal health care. On the other hand, independent Republicans were almost as conservative as regular Republicans. The large majority opposed abortion rights, gay marriage, and government-sponsored universal health care. The two groups also differed sharply in their opinion of President Bush with 84 percent of independent Democrats strongly disapproving of his performance compared with only 31 percent of independent Republicans.

Given their opinions on the issues, it is not surprising that leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for the candidate of their preferred party. The 91 percent of independent Democrats who voted for Barack Obama was almost identical to the 92 percent of regular Democrats who voted for Obama while the 82 percent of independent Republicans who voted for John McCain was only slightly lower than the 93 percent of regular Republicans who voted for McCain. Once again, the results were similar to those from other recent elections. In 2004, for example, 87 percent of independent Democrats voted for John Kerry while 89 percent of independent Republicans voted for George Bush.

These findings have important implications for our understanding of public opinion toward the President in an era of intense partisan polarization. For the large majority of Americans, including the large majority of self-identified independents, evaluations of the President are driven by stable partisan and ideological orientations. Thus, an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll conducted in late February, barely a month after Barack Obama's inauguration, found that 89 percent of independent Democrats along with 90 percent of regular Democrats approved of the President's performance compared with only 17 percent of independent Republicans and 21 percent of regular Republicans.

The bad news for Mr. Obama is that without making major policy concessions that would alienate his own base, there is probably little he can do to win the support of either regular Republicans or independent Republicans. The good news for Mr. Obama is that because independent Democrats outnumber independent Republicans by about the same 5 to 4 ratio that regular Democrats outnumber regular Republicans, he has a good chance of maintaining a positive net approval rating if he continues to pursue policies that are supported by both regular Democrats and independent Democrats.

Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University.

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