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The amazingly unpredictable independent voter

A new national poll from the Pew Research Center shows that independents have swung drastically in support of Republicans since 2008 but the support of these unaffiliated voters is remarkably fluid and could well switch again prior to the next presidential election.

While the findings of the Pew poll are not terribly new -- Republican gubernatorial candidates won independents overwhelmingly in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 as did Sen. Scott Brown earlier this year in Massachusetts -- the level of changeability apparent in their voting patterns suggest they will keep the national political climate unstable for years to come.

First, the numbers.

In the Pew poll, likely independent voters favored a generic Republican candidate over a generic Democratic candidate by 13 points -- a gap that gives the GOP a seven-point overall edge on the question.

If that margin holds through election day -- and that's a big "if" -- it would represent a massive 31-point swing among independent voters since the 2006 midterms when unaffiliated voters went for Democrats by 18 points. (In 2008, President Barack Obama won independents by a less stratospheric -- but still impressive -- eight-point margin over Arizona Sen. John McCain.

What's most fascinating about the Pew numbers is the partisan fluidity of independents.

Asked whether they have regarded themselves as a Democrat or a Republican within the last five years, more than half of the sample said they had. Twenty-three percent said they had previously regarded themselves as a Democrat, 22 percent said they had considered themselves a Republican and nine percent said they had been both a Democrat and a Republican in the last five years.

And, just like in 2006 when unaffiliated voters left Republicans in droves due to a distaste for President George W. Bush, they are abandoning Democrats this time around because of a feeling of disappointment with President Barack Obama and Congress.

"Support for the Republicans and political energy among independents is closely linked to disillusionment with Obama's policies and the President himself," reads a Pew report analyzing the results.

One startling number to prove that point: Seven in ten (69 percent) of independents who think Obama's economic policies have worsened rather than improved things in the country, back the generic Republican candidate in their home congressional district.

The numbers will provide little comfort to Democrats facing voters in 39 days as it's hard to imagine the sentiment among independents changing in any meaningful way between now and then.

But, they should provide some level of relief to Obama and his strategists since the President's erosion among independents appears to be rooted far less in a desire for Republican leadership than in doubts surrounding the federal government's ability to get the job done.

One worthwhile measure of that competence question: In the Pew data, 42 percent of independents said the Republican party could do a better job of managing the government while 31 percent side with the Democratic party.

If -- and, yet again, it's a big "if -- the Obama Administration can demonstrate tangible results on the economy and health care between now and 2012, it's uniquely possible that the same independents abandoning him and his party today could come back around to his side in the re-election race.

"Given their detachment from the parties and general skepticism about politics, independents' views of president's and parties' performances can and do change quickly," reads the Pew analysis.

With the rising numbers of independents -- 37 percent of registered voters in the Pew data called themselves non-partisans while 34 percent described themselves as Democrats and 29 percent as Republicans -- the Obama political team will almost certainly push policies over the next two years to court these unaffiliated voters to bring them back into the fold.

Whether independents swing back (again) or not could be the critical data point in determining whether President Obama wins a second term.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 24, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party, Republican Party  
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