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As the presidential race heats up, Republicans and Democrats are again vying for the support of a crucial constituency: millions of independent voters who belong to no political party. In the 2000 election, presidential candidates shaped their campaigns to appeal to independents in the ideological center. “It was the compassionate conservatives versus the Clintonian triangulators,� says John Zogby, president of Zogby International, a polling firm in Utica, N.Y.

Independents will once again play an important role in this year's presidential election, because the rest of the electorate is so evenly split between the two main political parties. At the end of February, presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry was running neck and neck with President Bush in a country divided between more conservative “red states� in the heartland and more liberal “blue states� on both coasts.

Ironically, a Zogby poll conducted in mid-February exclusively for American Demographics reveals that, like the broader electorate, independent voters are also evenly divided: 31 percent of them would choose Republican if they had to pick a party, 29 percent would pick Democrat and 21 percent weren't sure. The ideological extremes are also represented: 6 percent of independents would opt for the Libertarian Party and 7 percent would choose the Green Party.

The bad news for conservatives is that a majority of independents line up on the liberal-to-moderate side of the ideological spectrum. Twenty-one percent of independents in the Zogby poll described themselves as liberal or progressive, while 37 percent called themselves moderates. In contrast, 30 percent of independents describe their politics as conservative, with only 4 percent calling themselves “very conservative� or libertarian.

Zogby asserts that the polls indicate independents are trending more liberal in this election year as opposed to 2000. For example, fully 70 percent of independents believe the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, a traditionally Democratic concern. “The environment is a Democratic ace in the hole this year,� Zogby says.

Meanwhile, 82 percent of independents want the federal government to play a major role in protecting individual freedom, suggesting a backlash against the Patriot Act and other attempts by the Bush administration to change the traditional balance between national security and individual liberty. Sixty-two percent feel the government should help ensure that all citizens have economic opportunities, while 60 percent want a dominant role by the federal government in providing social programs to help the needy.

The liberal bias of independents contrasts sharply with the other elections in which their vote has proved critical. In the 1980 election, blue-collar workers deserted Jimmy Carter and the Democrats to vote Ronald Reagan into office. And in the 1990s, Bill Clinton infuriated traditional liberals but won the presidency twice by appealing to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative instincts of suburban soccer moms. Third party candidates — John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 — attracted disaffected voters who saw no real difference between Republicans and Democrats.

In 2000, the independent vote split evenly between the two parties, although 20 percent of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's support came from independents, who might not have voted at all. (The balance of Nader's supporters were left-wing Democrats who spurned the cautiously centrist Al Gore.) As we know, Bush won the presidency after the U.S. Supreme Court decided the deadlocked Florida race in his favor. “Independents were decisive in creating the indecision,� Zogby says.

A liberal-to-moderate independent population seems like it would benefit Kerry. But the current numbers pose a troubling question for the Democratic Party: If so many independent voters side with Democrats on the issues, then why aren't they Democrats? Zogby points to lingering concerns left over from the Clinton era, when numerous voters were put off by the scandals in Clinton's private life, even while they enjoyed economic prosperity. “The Clinton years have had a negative impact� on the Democratic Party, he says.

Ethical issues seem most pronounced among younger independents. Forty-three percent of those ages 18 to 24 say that a presidential candidate's personal moral integrity is more important to them than jobs. Older voters tend to be far more concerned about jobs and the economy, with nearly half (48 percent) of 30- to 49-year-old independents saying jobs are most important, while 33 percent of those over 50, who are either closer to retiring or retired, agree.

Overall, 38 percent of independents say jobs and the economy will have the most influence over their vote for president. Eighteen percent cite the candidate's personal integrity, 15 percent cite his position on health care, and 14 percent are most concerned about national security.

There are striking regional differences on these issues, however. Eastern independents are evenly divided between jobs and the economy (23 percent) and health care (22 percent) as the most important issues, while those elsewhere in the country are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy (42 percent overall). Almost 1 in 4 Southern independents (24 percent) says that a candidate's moral integrity is most important to them, while 1 in 5 voters in Western states (21 percent) cites national security.

As one might expect, ideology also affects the independent voter's attitudes. Nearly half (48 percent) of moderate independents say jobs and the economy are the decisive issue this election year. Forty-seven percent of liberals and a whopping 63 percent of progressives agree. On the other hand, conservative independents are almost evenly split among jobs (23 percent), national security (20 percent) and a candidate's personal integrity (21 percent). And 45 percent who describe themselves as very conservative are most concerned about integrity.

Most independents are white, according to the survey, outnumbering Hispanics, the next largest group, by about 7-to- 1. A plurality of white independents (32 percent) would choose the Democrats if they had to pick a party, while 28 percent would choose the Republicans. On the other hand, 59 percent of Hispanic independents in the survey would choose the Republicans and none would choose the Democrats. Very few African Americans describe themselves as independent and every single one of them would choose the Democratic Party if they had to choose. (The sample size of minority independents is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, however.)

Before Democrats break out the champagne, they should note that just over 9 in 10 (91 percent) independents want the federal government to play a major role in safeguarding the nation against terrorists. This is hardly surprising, given that Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are still at large, and that U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are coming under almost daily attack. And it's a tribute to the rhetorical, if not practical, success of President Bush's “war on terror� that voters register much higher levels of concern about terrorist threats than about national security, two ideas that would appear to be closely related.

Voters have historically trusted the Republicans over the Democrats on defense issues. On the other hand, they usually blame the incumbent for everything that goes wrong on his watch. As of February 24, 547 American troops had been killed and more than 3,000 had been wounded in Iraq. Around that time, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he didn't know how long U.S. troops would remain in Iraq. The Bush administration must also contend with the fact that no weapons of mass destruction are expected to be found in Iraq and that Bush's military service during the Vietnam war has come under renewed scrutiny.

Still, Zogby argues that another terrorist attack might again rally the American public around Bush. After Sept. 11, his approval ratings skyrocketed to 90 percent. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in early February found that his approval rating had fallen to 52 percent. “It could be played as don't change the captain in midstream,� Zogby says. (The captain himself made this point in his January 20 State of the Union address, when he pledged not to “falter and leave our work unfinished.�)

But based on recent polls, Zogby maintains that economic security is uppermost in the minds of independent voters this year. “Jobs are paramount,� he says. “It's not quite 1932, but people want the government to do something now.�

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