Independents Take Center Stage in the Obama Era

May 21, 2009

Centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion as the Obama era begins. The political values and core attitudes that the Pew Research Center has monitored since 1987 show little overall ideological movement. Republicans and Democrats are even more divided than in the past, while the growing political middle is steadfastly mixed in its beliefs about government, the free market and other values that underlie views on contemporary issues and policies. Nor are there indications of a continuation of the partisan realignment that began in the Bush years. Both political parties have lost adherents since the election and an increasing number of Americans identify as independents.

The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years. Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.

While the Democrats gained a sizable advantage in partisan affiliation during George Bush's presidency, their numbers slipped between December 2008 and April 2009, from 39% to 33%. Republican losses have been a little more modest, from 26% to 22%, but this represents the lowest level of professed affiliation with the GOP in at least a quarter century. Moreover, on nearly every dimension the Republican Party is at a low ebb--- from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.

By contrast, the percentage of self-described political independents has steadily climbed, on a monthly basis, from 30% last December to 39% in April. Taking an average of surveys conducted this year, 36% say they are independents, 35% are Democrats, while 23% are Republicans. On an annual basis, the only previous year when independent identification has been this high was in 1992 when Ross Perot ran a popular independent candidacy.

As has been the case in recent years, more independents "lean" Democratic than Republican (17% vs. 12%). Yet an increasing share of independents describe their views as conservative; in surveys conducted this year, 33% of independents say they are conservatives, up from 28% in 2007 and 26% in 2005. Again, this ideological change is at least in part a consequence of former Republicans moving into the ranks of independents.

Read the full report Independents Take Center Stage in the Obama Era on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press' Web site.

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