Barack Obama (D): 49 (50)In a presidential election year, it could be fairly argued that two things are the key to victory. One is the composition of the electorate: in 2008, Democrats held their biggest edge in years in the composition of the electorate, according to the exit polls (39-32 over the GOP). The results, quite obviously, were very amenable to the Blue team. Conversely, in 2010, the GOP managed to arrive at parity with the Democrats (35-35), a rarity that proved to be instrumental in the Republican path to victory.
Mitt Romney (R): 44 (44)
Undecided: 7 (6)
The second key to victory is a strong performance with unaffiliated, or independent, voters. In 2006 and 2008, independents behaved, as one GOP consultant at the time groused, like soft Democrats. In 2008, Obama carried this group 52-44. By 2010, however, it became clear that the tricky-to-define mass of independent voters had grown far more conservative: Republicans carried them nationally 56-37.
This week, the second week of our weekly tracking of the presidential election, let's put the independent voters under the microscope and see if they are more like the "soft Democrat" indies of 2008 or the tea-infused ones that hammered the Democrats in 2010. And while it is early (and this is but one poll), we can clearly see signs that it is more likely to be the former than the latter:
- This crop of Independent voters does not particularly like Mitt Romney: Romney draws a comically weak 33/50 favorability spread with the sample of Indies for this week's Daily Kos/SEIU State of the Nation Poll. He also trails them in the ballot test with Barack Obama by a margin similar to that by which John McCain fell to Obama in 2008 (39-48).
- If their feelings for the parties are any indicator, this is not a conservative crowd: Independent voters in our survey were not wild about the Democratic Party, but it wouldn't be unfair to call it a "mixed" assessment. Thirty-eight percent had a favorable opinion of the Democrats, while 44 percent had an unfavorable opinion. The GOP, meanwhile, was reviled with these Independent voters, with a net negative spread of 31 points (25/56). This gap represents a much bigger spread than we saw in 2010, where that "favorability spread" generally remained in the single digits between the two parties (although, even then, Democrats were viewed incrementally more favorably).
- President Obama fares reasonably well with Independents, and might be improved by standing his ground with the GOP: His job approval with the group is slightly underwater (45/49), but his favorability ratings with them are a net positive (51/44). And contrary to the conventional wisdom that the president would need to equivocate his positions in order to attract Independents, 1 in 10 Independent voters actually find Obama to be "too conservative." That's actually even a higher proportion than the percentage of Democrats who feel that way.
- If enthusiasm matters, Independents may matter less in 2012: If there is an "enthusiasm gap" this year, it is with this crop of voters. Now, in fairness, that is far from novel—Independents lack the "rooting interest" of partisanship that can often be a whale of a motivator to head to the polls. But the gap here is palpable: only 39 percent of Indies say that they are "very excited" about the 2012 elections, versus 31 percent who say that they are "not at all excited." For Democrats, that spread is 55/30. For Republicans, that spread is 50/28.
This sample of Independents, if they truly are representative of the electorate in six months or so, could spell enormous problems for Mitt Romney and the Republicans. If an enterprising Republican digs under the hood at this survey, they are going to have difficulty finding a hook on which to bleat about "bias." The liberal/conservative spread, if anything, favors the GOP. In 2008, the Lib/Con spread was conservative +12 (34/22). In this poll, the spread is conservative +22 (38/16). That 38 percent of self-identified conservatives is an exact midpoint between the 2008 and 2010 exit polls, as well. The partisan breakdown (D 40, R 34, I 26) might be a little light on Independent voters, but the six-point spread between Democrats and Republicans is actually a point less than the spread from the 2008 exit polls.
Worth noting: at the same time that PPP found very little movement in its polling of the presidential race, Gallup found an eight-point movement in the president's direction, while Rasmussen has bounced back and forth. Given the relative paucity of game-changing news events in the past week, I feel a bit more confident in this poll than one that showed mammoth shifts absent an obvious and compelling rationale for those shifts taking place.
P.S. As always, our approval and favorability numbers can be found on our weekly trends page.