- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

Throughout the summer, The American Survey has explored the contours of independent voters - who they are and how they vote. Both the McCain and Obama campaigns seek to persuade this constituency because neither self-identified Republicans nor Democrats - by themselves - represent the numbers necessary to reach a majority. So, as in elections past, “independents” will tip the balance in this year’s presidential election.

Earlier surveys clarified several misconceptions about these unaffiliated Americans. On June 23, I noted that while surveys show 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans call themselves independents, as many as two-thirds of this group are really “closet partisans” and vote like Democrats or Republicans.

Those who say they are independent but lean Democrat vote overwhelmingly blue, while those independents who lean Republican usually side with the red team. This means they are less of a “swing group” than assumed by many media accounts. Once you remove the “leaners,” the true independents are a much smaller group - probably closer to 10 percent rather than the 35 percent to 40 percent reported in most national surveys.

On July 11, I described how the independent group, particularly those true independents who do not lean toward one party or the other, is least attentive to and least knowledgeable about politics. When asked for ideological self-definition, while some say they’re liberal and others consider themselves moderate or conservative, the largest percentage of pure independents (about 40 percent) answer they “don’t know,” according to the American National Election Study at the University of Michigan.

For these reasons, independent voters are a hard group to politically corral. Adding to these challenges, research also indicates they make their voting decisions later than other Americans. As the accompanying table indicates, nearly one-third of true independents decide in the last two weeks of the election. Tactically, this means this group stays “in play” longer than other constituencies, a fact with important implications for political campaigns’ advertising and outreach strategies.

True political independents are a key swing group in presidential elections. But reaching and persuading them is always a challenge. It’s probably less effective appealing to them with messages heavily laden with issue positions, ideological arguments or even contacts early in the campaign. They probably pay more attention to neighbors they trust than an ad they see on television. And sometimes the last voice they hear is the most persuasive.

These are hurdles faced by both presidential campaigns. But the one that understands these nuances best will not only win a bigger share of the independent vote, but will also be the next occupant of the Oval Office.

Gary Andres, who also writes a column for The Washington Times, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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