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Whither the independents

Every national poll in the last week (save the reliably Republican Rasmussen) has shown the president leading within a fairly narrow band — 1 to 6 points — averaging to a 3-point Obama advantage. For those interested in where the race stands, it’s a clear and consistent message.

For those focused on the internal dynamics of the election, the picture is anything but clear with respect to one of the most important segments of the electorate — independents. There has rightly been tremendous focus on this group, as it will likely determine the outcome. Given the (usually reported) Democratic advantage in party identification, the president could probably still prevail if he lost independents, but he cannot afford to lose them by too much.

So where do things stand with this vital group of voters? Take your pick. (Hat tip to the always-astute Jon Cohen, the Washington Post’s polling director, for alerting me and others to the discrepancies.)

The same polls that reveal relative consistency overall contain extraordinary variation when it comes to the votes of independents. The CNN/ORC poll, which has Obama ahead by 6 overall, says he is losing independents by a vast 14 points. Rasmussen, which claims the president is behind overall by 1, has him down a lesser, but still large, 10 points among independents. The CBS/New York Times poll puts Obama ahead by 3 overall, but behind by 6 among independents. The Esquire/Yahoo Poll finds the president ahead by 4 overall, but says he leads with independents by a wide 11-point margin, while Fox suggests Obama is ahead by 5 points, both overall and with independents. 

Of course, there is a middle ground between the extremes. Gallup and the Investor’s Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll say the president is leading by 3 and 2 points, respectively, but both find him tied among independents.

In this confusing mishmash of data, it is worth noting that two of the polls with very discrepant results were conducted by the same firm, increasing our bewilderment. 

More importantly, there is little consistent relationship between findings about the race overall and the vote among independents across these polls. The survey that has the president faring best overall has him doing worst among independents.

What’s an analyst to do?

First, recognize that different pollsters define independents differently. Some include those who lean toward a party as independents, while some do not. Those “leaners” tend to vote like partisans. In a few cases, the format of the question that sorts voters into partisan categories is different. So all independents are not the same. Different pollsters end up including different people in the category.

Second, realize these are smaller subsamples, subject to greater margins of error. In the Esquire/Yahoo, ABC/Washington Post and CNN/ORC polls, the margin of error on the subsample of independents is over +/- 6 percentage points.

Third, be aware that much of the overall differences among these polls result from different assumptions the pollsters make (or different data they rely on) about the partisan composition of the electorate. Rasmussen believes there will be more Republicans than Democrats on Election Day, by a 4-point margin. Esquire/Yahoo believes Democrats will outnumber Republicans by 9 points. Since, in this highly polarized environment, nearly all partisans back their party’s candidate, the balance of partisanship can make all the difference in the world.

Finally, be careful about analyses purporting to describe the role of independents in this election based on any single poll. Chances are there is another survey that paints a very different picture of how that crucial segment is behaving. There is a lot less certainty in all this than we would like.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.