Who Are Independents And What Do They Want?

Alex Gage of Targetpoint consulting sends along a fascinating study of independent voters he and Alex Lundry completed in June. Mr. Gage was a senior strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and was the chief microtargeter for the Bush-Cheney re-election 2004 campaign.

Gage and Lundy urveyed 900 independent voters to assess existing attitudes about the two presidential candidates and figure out optimal ways to persuade independents to support them.

Today, the results of the survey. On Monday, Gage's recommendations for John McCain.

Yes, Mr. Gage and his team want to help Republicans; if current trends don’t change, they estimate that Democrats stand to gain several million voters over the next few years.

Among the key findings: Democrats have a built-in structural advantage among independents to the score of between five and ten points. But McCain remains competitive because a lot of those independents are ideological conservatives who have weak partisan attachments to the Republican Party. Without being pushed, 45% of the sample, including 59% of the self-described moderates in the sample, said they would vote for Obama and 39% said they would vote for McCain. With leaners, McCain makes up two points of the margin.

Political scientists often break independents into two categories: engaged party switchers – those high-information voters who base their decisions on issues and a rational appraisal of the candidates – and a category of voters who are interested in politics but don’t know a lot about the issues and thus are swayed fairly easily by good messaging. Gage’s survey seems targeted at both types of swing voters.

On issues, a supermajority believe that the U.S. has an “obligation” to establish stability in Iraq; about half care about gun issues, with a plurality supporting gun control; less than half vote on abortion, with more pro-choice identifiers than pro-life identifiers. 56% of the sample support making permanent the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

The candidates

Obama is seen as a candidate of the future; an agent of change; the positive words they associate with him are “change” “future” and reform. “ McCain is seen as the more competent candidate; the positive words associated with him are “experience” and “integrity.” Independents feel “warmer” about Obama than McCain. The demographic cleavages that exist within the electorate – Obama’s loved by the young and McCain is popular with older folks – exist within the sample of independents, too.

The candidates versus the party

Twice as many independents agree with this statement: “Barack Obama offers the best ideas for reforming and fixing the government” as they do this statement: “Democragts offer the best ideas for reforming and fixing the government.” Not a huge surprise if you think about it: independents are independents because they haven’t formed an attachment to either political party or decided to leave one and not affiliate with another.

The 12% of the sample who said they voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries support John McCain by four percentage points.