By David W. Brady and Douglas Rivers
More Americans now call themselves independents than Democrats or Republicans. New Hampshire, site of the season’s first presidential primary, is a good example: about 40 percent of Granite State voters were not registered as members of either major political party. Our best estimate is that the share of independents nationally has grown to 42 percent from 35 percent over the past three years. That 7 percent of the electorate is big enough to have changed the outcome of any of the past five presidential elections—and this is not necessarily good news for the GOP.
Barack Obama carried independents by an 8-point margin in the 2008 exit poll—and Republicans carried them by a 19-point margin in the 2010 midterms. Thus GOP candidates may be tempted to believe that the independents’ disaffection with the president, which cost Democrats control of the House, will lead inexorably to a Republican presidential victory in November.
Not so fast. In the first place, Republicans benefited from a low Democratic midterm turnout. According to exit polls, there were about equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters in the midterm, unlike in 2008, when Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 7 percentage points (39 percent to 32 percent). Republicans can’t count on a low Democratic turnout in 2012 and there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans. To win in 2012, it would be enough for Democrats to split the independent vote. Republicans need to carry a clear majority. And there are significant policy disagreements between independents and the Republican base.