A record-high 40% of Americans identified as political independents in 2011, according to a new poll by Gallup. The proportion of independents in 2011 was the largest in at least 60 years of polling.
In recent decades, increased independent identification has been common in the year before an election, as has been a decline during a presidential year (the only exception was in 1992, when independent identification increased from 1991). But the fact that there are more political independents than in any other pre-election year is a sign of the state of our union: With a struggling economy, record levels of congressional disapproval, and unfavorable views of both Dems and Republicans, it is no wonder that Americans are no longer identifying with either party.
Interestingly, more Americans identify as Democrats (31%) than Republicans (27%). There was a two-point increase in independent identification from 2010 (38%) to 2011 (40%), and the net result of that change was a decline in support for the Republican party, which dropped from 29% to 27%. More Americans have identified as Democrats than Republicans in all but several years since 1988.
But, proportionately more independents lean to the GOP than the Democratic party. When party leanings are taken into account, the parties end up tied and stand on equal footing going into the 2012 election.
What does this all mean for 2012? If national conditions do not change over the course of the year – and there are few signs that the economy will pick up considerably, or that approval of Congress will improve – independent voters will play a major factor in this election cycle. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee, will be smart to play to the center, to cater to undecided voters and independents rather than their ideological base.
That may mean they will pick independents as vice presidential running mates. It will almost certainly mean that the most ideological and hardline voters within the Democratic and Republican parties – progressives and the Tea Party – will be disappointed in 2012.
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