Who Are Independents?

Politicians chase them in every election, but what do they want to hear from President Obama?

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Each election turns political strategists into modern-day Ponce de Leóns, searching for independents, who like the Fountain of Youth, might revive their fortunes. Michael Kazin, writing for The New Republic, described them as "critical" to the 2012 election before disparaging them:

"Of course, the dynamics could change, giving one party or the other a landslide victory. But I wouldn't count on it. Indeed, the Democracy Corps poll reveals that our next holders of state power might end up being chosen by a minority that seems to stands for very little -- or, perhaps, for nothing at all."

But a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveals independents have distinct views, ideas, and personality traits. Roughly one-third of voters, they include Libertarians, Disaffecteds, and Post-Moderns.

What distinguishes these types of independents from one another, and what do they want to hear from politicians?

Libertarians are what you might expect, so I'm going to focus on the other two groups, which are not only more interesting, but I suspect, pivotal to the next election.


Mostly middle-aged, non-college educated whites, Disaffecteds panic about their finances. The recession hit them hardest; they lost jobs and aren't looking forward to the future. They have a curious, bi-polar view of government. Given their hardships, many want more government services, but most think the government wastes money and isn't effective. About half believe health care reform was a mixed bag. Fewer than a third approve of Obama's job performance.

Further up the economic ladder, young, well-educated Post-Moderns align with Democrats' social agenda but break with party orthodoxy on the size of government and social services. They're overwhelmingly pro-environment and gay rights, but they mostly favor Wall Street and small government too. Post-Moderns align well with moderate, pro-business Democratic groups like Third Way.

These voters also view health care reform as a mixed bag -- more so than any other group. While they went big for Obama in 2008 and support his re-election, they're less enthusiastic about him than are other voters in the Democratic coalition.

It's no secret the White House aims to increase its standing among independents. The administration must win over more Disaffecteds and boost enthusiasm among Post-Moderns.

Finding a job is about the only thing on Disaffecteds' minds -- their votes appear contingent upon lower gas prices and unemployment rates, conditions over which Obama has limited influence.

Seth Meyers recently joked that the only person who could beat President Obama is "2008 Barack Obama." Meyers speaks for Post-Moderns who still support the President but with reservation. They remain ambivalent about his signature domestic policy achievement -- health care -- and they're not crazy about government spending.

If the United States withdraws from its foreign wars -- Post-Moderns hate military intervention -- and domestic spending declines next year, these voters may rediscover that magic feeling about the president.

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Image credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters