Independents are often described as a cohesive bloc of voters, whose views consistently fall midway between those of Republicans and Democrats. Yet a closer look at independents finds a substantial degree of diversity among these voters – demographic, ideological and in their attitudes and opinions.
In this survey, we identify four main groups of independent voters – two that strongly favor Republican candidates in this fall’s elections, one that strongly favors the Democrats, and another that supports the Democrats, though only modestly.
Shadow Republicans (26% of independent voters) stand out for their strong anti-government views – 21% volunteer that they “never” trust the federal government. Yet they are not especially critical of the political system and are strongly pro-business. Shadow Republicans are largely comprised of white males; in fact, fully two-thirds (67%) of this group are men – a much higher percentage than in the other independent groups or among Republican voters (only about half – 49% – of whom are men).
This group also is better educated and more affluent than voters who identify with the Republican Party or other independent voters; 52% are college graduates and 45% have annual family incomes of $75,000 or more (compared with 36% and 30%, respectively, of Republican voters). And Shadow Republicans are older (61% are 50 and older, compared wit
h 53% of Republicans). However, while Shadow Republicans overwhelmingly lean to the Republican Party – and most say they will vote Republican this November – only about half (52%) have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party.
The demographic portrait of Disaffecteds (16% of independent voters), the other GOP-leaning group of independents, is strikingly different from the Shadow Republicans. They have been hard hit by the recession – just 19% of Disaffecteds have family incomes of $75,000 a year or more, less than half of the proportion of Shadow Republicans.
Disaffected independents have an extremely pessimistic view of their own personal finances –nearly all of them rate their finances as only fair (69%) or poor (26%). Like the Shadow Republicans and Republican voters, Disaffecteds have a highly negative view of government. But Disaffecteds also are critical of business, political parties and elected officials.
Doubting Democrats (20% of independent voters) are much more critical of government and the political system – including the Democratic Party – than are Shadow Democrats, the other group of Democratic-leaning independents.
Demographically, Doubting Democrats share more in common with the GOP-leaning Disaffecteds than with Shadow Democrats. Just 20% of Doubting Democrats have family incomes of $75,000 or more, compared with 35% of Shadow Democrats. Doubting Democrats also are less demographically diverse than are Shadow Democrats – 79% are white non-Hispanics, compared with 65% of Shadow Democrats.
As their name implies, Doubting Democrats express mixed views of the Democratic Party; fewer than half (46%) say they lean Democratic, while 34% lean to the GOP. Just 29% approve of Barack Obama’s job performance and most (54%) say they disapprove of the health care legislation passed by Obama and Congress.
By contrast, most Shadow Democrats (64%) lean to the Democratic Party and they express consistently positive views of the Democratic Party, President Obama and his proposals. They also are more upbeat about the direction of the country and have more positive views of government.
There also is a fifth group of independent voters, the Disengaged (17% of independent voters), which is disproportionately comprised of women, young people and minorities. For the most part, the Disengaged are essentially political bystanders –just 21% say they definitely will vote this fall, far and away the lowest percentage among the independent groups. The analysis in this section concentrates only on the four main groups of independent voters.
Independent Groups and the Midterms
Among all registered independents, 42% say if the election were being held today they would vote for the Republican in their House district or lean Republican; 39% would vote for the Democrat or lean to the Democrat while 19% are undecided.
Shadow Republican independents favor the GOP candidate by 66% to 18%. Disaffected independent voters favor the Republican candidate in their district by a somewhat smaller margin than do Shadow Republicans (58% to 31%). However, Disaffecteds’ support for the GOP candidate is robust compared with the level of support among Doubting Democrats for Democratic candidates; fewer than half (44%) favor or lean to the Democratic candidate while 32% favor or lean to the Republican and 24% express no opinion.
The “enthusiasm gap” among groups of independent voters parallels the gap among partisans: Shadow Republicans (63%) and Disaffecteds (66%) are far more likely to say they have given a lot of thought to the election than have either Shadow Democrats (46%) or Doubting Democrats (47%).
But there are no significant differences in political engagement between the Republican- and Democratic-leaning groups of independents and their partisan counterparts. Shadow Republicans and Disaffecteds are about as likely as Republican-affiliated voters to say they are giving a lot of thought to the election and that they will definitely vote. Conversely, comparable percentages of Shadow Democrats, Doubting Democrats and voters who identify as Democrats say they are giving a lot of thought to the election and will definitely vote.
Independent Groups and Obama
Overall, 39% of independent voters approve of Barack Obama’s job performance while 50% disapprove. In three of the four main groups of independent voters, fewer than a third approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president.
Notably, about twice as many Doubting Democrats disapprove of Obama’s job performance (57%) as approve (29%). Obama’s approval rating among this group is no higher than among the GOP-leaning Disaffecteds (28% approve), though somewhat more Disaffecteds disapprove (69%).
Obama’s favorability among Doubting Democrats is more positive than his job approval rating: 41% say they have a favorable opinion of Obama while 50% have an unfavorable view. Still, only about half as many Doubting Democrats (41%) as Shadow Democrats (86%) have a favorable impression of Obama. Opinions about Obama among Shadow Democrats – both job approval and favorability – are as positive as among voters who identify as Democrats.
GOP-leaning independent voters have generally negative personal impressions of Obama. Still, far more Disaffecteds (34%) than Republican voters (11%) express favorable opinions of Obama.
Despite their critical views of Obama, the GOP-leaning independent groups are far less likely than Republican partisans to view their vote this fall as a vote “against” Obama. Fully 62% of Republican voters view their vote as a vote against Obama, compared with 45% of Disaffected independents and 41% of Shadow Republicans.
Majorities of Shadow Democrats (56%) and Doubting Democrats (52%) say that Obama will not be much of a factor in their vote this fall. However, more Shadow Democrats say they consider their vote as a vote for Obama than against him (by 33% to 7%); among Doubting Democrats, the balance of opinion is reversed (27% against/15% for).
“Shadow Reps” Lukewarm toward GOP
Roughly two-thirds of Shadow Republican independents (68%) lean to the Republican Party and about as many (66%) say they favor the Republican congressional candidate in their district. But they have a mixed view of the Republican Party itself – just 52% of Shadow Republicans have a favorable opinion of the GOP while 43% have an unfavorable opinion.
In fact, Disaffected independents – who are far less likely to lean to the GOP (53%) – have about as favorable opinion of the Republican Party (55%) as do Shadow Republicans. However, Shadow Republicans express a far more negative opinion of the Democratic Party than do Disaffected independents (76% unfavorable vs. 57% unfavorable).
The two Democratic-leaning independent groups are as divided in their view of the Democratic Party as they are in their opinions about Obama. Fully 81% of Shadow Democratic independent voters say they have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party compared with just 44% of Doubting Democrats. Notably, Doubting Democrats feel as favorably toward the GOP (42% favorable) as toward the Democratic Party.
Views of the Tea Party
Doubting Democrats also have mixed views of the Tea Party. As many say they agree (24%) with the Tea Party movement as disagree (25%); 51% have no opinion of the Tea Party movement or have never heard of it.
Shadow Democrats and Democratic voters view the Tea Party very negatively: Among both groups of voters, more than four-in-ten say they disagree with the Tea Party movement (46% Shadow Democrats, 45% Democrats) while just 9% and 6%, respectively, say they agree.
By wide margins, Republican voters and GOP-leaning independent voters say they agree with the Tea Party movement. Most Republican voters (56%) and Shadow Republicans (56%) agree with the Tea Party movement, as do 47% of Disaffecteds.
Views of Parties and Issues
The conflicted views that many independents have about the political parties also are reflected in opinions about the parties’ traits and their handling of specific issues.
Disaffected independents see the Republican Party as better able than the Democratic Party to bring about the changes the country needs (by 46% to 24%) and as better able to manage the federal government (by 50% to 23%).
However, Disaffecteds are divided as to whether the Republican Party or Democratic Party is better described by the phrase “is more concerned with the needs of people like me.” Despite their Republican leanings, nearly as many Disaffecteds say the Democrats (38%) as Republicans (43%) better embodies this trait.
Despite their skeptical view of the Democratic Party, more than half (54%) of Doubting Democrats see the party as more concerned with needs of people like them; just 22% say the GOP. And by roughly two-to-one (43% to 21%), more Doubting Democrats say the Democratic Party rather than the GOP can bring needed change.
But Doubting Democrats live up to their name in assessing the ability of the two parties to manage the federal government: 34% say the Democratic Party could do better, while 32% say the GOP could do better and 22% volunteer neither party.
Shadow Democrats offer more uniformly positive views of the Democratic Party across all three traits. Similarly, despite their lukewarm overall view of the party, Shadow Republicans give more positive evaluations of the GOP than do Disaffecteds.
In terms of issues, independent voters say the Republican Party can do a better job than the Democratic Party of reducing the deficit (by 44% to 29%). On improving the job situation and dealing with health care, the two parties are rated about evenly among independents (40% Rep/35% Dem on job situation; 39% Dem/ 36% Rep on health care).
Doubting Democrats are divided in views of which party can better reduce the deficit and improve the job situation. Yet they favor the Democratic Party by 45% to 28% as better able than the Republicans to deal with health care.
Which Party Comes Closer to Your Views?
The survey asks independent voters which party comes closer to their views on three sets of issues. Far more independents say the Republican Party than the Democratic Party comes closer to their views on foreign policy and national security (by 44% to 30%). On economic issues, 43% say the Republican Party comes closer to their views, while 34% say the Democratic Party. But slightly more independents say the Democratic Party (39%) than the GOP (33%) is closer to their views on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Clear majorities of Shadow Republicans and Disaffecteds say the Republican Party rather than the Democratic Party comes closer to their views on foreign policy and economic issues. But fewer than half in both Republican-leaning groups say the Republican Party comes closer to their views on social issues (46% of Shadow Republicans, 45% of Disaffecteds).
About as many Doubting Democrats say the Republican Party (33%) as the Democratic Party comes (36%) comes closer to their views on foreign policy and national security. And on economic issues, 40% of Doubting Democrats say the party comes closer to their views while 33% say the Republican Party.
On social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, a plurality (43%) of Doubting Democrats see the Democratic Party as coming closer to their own opinions, compared with 27% who say the GOP better reflects their views.
While Republican voters oppose same-sex marriage by greater than three-to-one (74% to 20%), there is far less opposition among GOP-leaning independent groups. About half of Shadow Republicans and Disaffecteds oppose gay marriage (49% each) while 37% of both groups favor it.
There is less daylight between Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning independents on this issue: 58% of Democratic voters favor same-sex marriage, as do 60% of Shadow Democrats and 50% of Doubting Democrats.
Shadow Republicans and Disaffecteds are more in sync with Republican voters when it comes to opinions about gun control. About seven-in-ten in each group say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership (73% of Republican voters, 70% of Shadow Republicans, 68% of Disaffecteds).
By contrast, majorities of Democratic voters (67%) and Shadow Democrats (58%) say it is more important to control gun ownership. But Doubting Democrats are divided; 49% say it is more important to control gun ownership while 44% say it is more important to protect gun rights.
Moreover, most Doubting Democrats disapprove of the health care legislation that Obama and Congress passed earlier this year; 54% disapprove of the law compared with just 32% who approve. The views of Doubting Democrats are more similar to those of Disaffecteds (31% approve) and Shadow Republicans (20%) than to those of Shadow Democrats (72% approve).
Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan
Most independent voters (54%) say the United States made the right decision to use military force in Afghanistan, but just 40% think the United States made the right decision in using force in Iraq.
While large majorities of Republican voters generally endorse the decisions to use military force in both countries, Shadow Republicans are much more supportive of the war in Afghanistan (65% right decision) than the war in Iraq (49%). Among Disaffecteds, comparable percentages support the use of force in Afghanistan (58%) and Iraq (55%).Democratic voters and Shadow Democrats are much more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Doubting Democrats express only modest support for the decisions to use force in both countries (39% Afghanistan, 30% Iraq).
Reasons for Being an Independent
Majorities of three of the four groups of independent voters say a main reason they are independent is that the two parties care more about special interests than about average Americans. And majorities in three groups say distrust of both parties is a main reason they are independents.
But Shadow Democrats take a far less negative view of the parties. About four-in-ten (39%) say the parties’ excessive concern for special interests is a main reason they are independents. And just 11% cite distrust of both parties as a main r
There is more agreement among the independent groups regarding other reasons for deciding not to affiliate with the major parties. For example, majorities across all four groups say that they agree with the Democratic Party on some issues and the GOP on others.