Rise in support from independents helping Obama gain in polls

President Obama has caught Mitt Romney among independent voters, helping to fuel his recent rise in the polls.

Romney led among independents earlier in the election cycle, when the race remained statistically tied for weeks.

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An ABC News-Washington Post poll on July 10 showed the candidates tied at 47 percent. Romney at the time held a 53 percent to 39 lead over Obama among independents.

On Monday, the ABC-Post poll found the two tied among independent voters, and Obama enjoying a 49 percent 47 lead overall. 

Similar changes can be seen in other polling. 

Romney led 48 percent to 42 among independents in a Pew Research survey from April, which showed Obama ahead by 4 points nationally. Pew’s latest poll shows Obama overtaking Romney 44 percent to 42 among independents and opening up a 7-point lead nationally.

The role of independents in 2012 is magnified by the increasing number of voters who tell pollsters they don’t identify with either of the major parties.

For example, the 2008 exit polls in Florida showed a breakdown that was 37 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican and 29 percent independent.

The New York Times-CBS-Quinnipiac poll of Florida released in September included 36 percent Democrats, 27 percent Republicans and 33 percent independents. Obama and Romney are statistically tied among independents in the state, with Romney holding a 49-46 percent edge, though overall the poll still shows Obama coming out on top by 9 percentage points.

The Ohio data is nearly identical. In 2008, exit polls showed 39 percent of voters were Democrats compared to 31 percent Republicans and 30 percent independents.

The Times-CBS-Quinnipiac 2012 poll was 35 percent Democratic, 26 Republican and 35 independent. Romney again edged Obama 47 percent to 46 among independents, but trails by 10 points in the state, according to the poll.

In many polls, the number of independents sampled will exceed the number of Republicans sampled, and in some cases independents make up a greater percentage than either party.

In the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, 34 percent identified as independent, 33 percent as Democrat and 28 percent as Republican.

The latest Pew survey breaks down similarly, with 36 percent identifying as Democrats, 31 percent as independent and 30 percent as Republican.

Obama’s national lead remains small, and if Romney can tilt independent support back in his favor, it would wipe out the narrow Democratic advantage in party identification that has been instrumental in boosting the president nationally.

Some conservatives have griped recently that polling has been skewed in favor of Obama, arguing that pollsters are oversampling Democrats.

In 2008, Democrats had a 7 percentage-point advantage in party identification over Republicans, which was close to the final margin of victory for Obama. 

Pollsters typically bake a similar party identification disparity into their statistical assumptions by weighting 2012 turnout projections on 2008, when Democrats — and Hispanics, blacks and young voters in particular — turned out in record numbers. 

Many analysts are predicting a party-identification margin somewhere between 2008’s 7-point Democratic advantage and the even split between Democrats and Republicans in the 2010 midterm election, in which the GOP posted massive gains.

While the party identification gap is likely to narrow in favor of Republicans, the problem for Romney doesn’t seem to be the oversampling of Democrats but rather that the Republican pool is shrinking amid the growing number of independents, who in recent polls have been giving the Democratic Party a second look.

But that could change easily.

Four years ago, Obama won the independent vote 52 percent to 44 over McCain. However, Obama trailed his GOP rival among independent voters early in the cycle.

According to a Pew Research poll conducted in early September 2008, which showed the candidates tied at 48, McCain led Obama 45 percent to 38 among independents

That changed following the financial collapse in September of that year, and after McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The final Pew survey before the election showed Obama ahead 52 percent to 46 nationally, and leading 45 percent to 39 among independents. 

While Obama has regained his footing with independents in 2012, countless events could provoke this voting bloc to take another look at Romney, including Wednesday’s leadoff general-election debate.