Woodruff: Will Independents Return to Obama in 2012?

BY Judy Woodruff  February 29, 2012 at 5:57 PM EST


Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

There’s a lot of talk thrown around in every election about the influence of independents — voters who are registered as neither Democrat nor Republican or who swing back and forth. To listen to some pundits (even this reporter has been guilty of this), independent voters hold awesome power in close elections.

This may be one election when that conventional wisdom holds up. With a stubbornly polarized atmosphere and partisans on each side fiercely holding to the candidates in their party, the role played by swing voters becomes even more significant. In recent years, independents have made up about 30 percent of the electorate. Republicans and Democrats split most of the other 70 percent, leaving a little room for minority parties.

In 2008, President Obama won 52 percent of independent voters, helping propel him to the presidency. This year, there’s good reason to believe those same voters who sided with Obama — rather than the 44 percent of independents who went with Sen. John McCain — will determine the outcome. First, it’s safe to assume almost all self-described Republicans and Democrats will vote for their party’s candidate. And it’s almost as safe to assume that the McCain independents in 2008 will be reluctant to switch to Obama four years later.

That leaves the focus on the Independents who swung to Obama four years ago. They are the subject of a paper by two policy analysts at the Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based centrist think tank. According to Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson, the Obama independents of 2008 have certain qualities that may help us understand which way they’ll go in 2012.

Diggles and Erickson identify 10 qualities in particular but stress four. First, Obama independents are the most moderate segment of the electorate. Second, they are true swing voters in that nearly half of them did not vote for the Democratic candidate in 2004. Third, they look like the U.S. in that they include more women and are more racially diverse than McCain independents. Fourth, they are secular and attend church less often.

With growing signs that independent voters may make up the highest proportion of the electorate since 1976, all eyes are on these prized citizens. But as Diggles and Erickson note: “Not all independents are the same, and the real showdown for 2012 is over who will win the Obama independents.” They said that if Obama can win the majority of them, he will win re-election. But if he does no better among them than Democrats did in the 2010 congressional elections when a quarter of the Obama independents voted Republican, the story could be different. Watching how Obama appeals to this crucial voting group is one story we plan to watch throughout this exciting election.