Survey paints a picture of US as a centrist nation

Independents are key but don't hold uniform views

By Liz Sidoti
Associated Press / May 22, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Barack Obama's presidency has ushered in an era of centrism, with independent voters now making up the largest proportion of the electorate in 70 years.

This fickle group doesn't have uniform opinions, so its dominance carries potential risks for emboldened Democrats and opportunities for Republicans.

A new Pew Research Center survey that contains those conclusions also found that the nation's values haven't fundamentally changed. The country hasn't become more ideologically liberal or conservative, despite sweeping Democratic victories at all levels of government last fall and shrinking GOP ranks.

Broadly, the findings indicate it's politically dangerous for the president and his fellow Democrats, who control Congress, to move too far to the left on domestic and foreign issues, lest they turn off middle-of-the-road voters whose support was critical in 2008 - and which will be important in upcoming elections.

The results also suggest that the public recently has rejected the GOP for poor performance, not because it disagrees with the party's positions on key issues. That means beleaguered Republicans must convince voters they are still good stewards of those values while improving the GOP's image and morale.

The report contains much that's likely to hearten Democrats looking to build upon Obama's popularity, and much that could further discourage Republicans seeking rebirth.

"There's certainly a lot of bad news for Republicans and better news, if not good news, for Democrats," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew center. He said both sides should take particular note of this finding: "Independents are very much the trump card these days, and their views are not all one way."

The survey found that 36 percent of the respondents call themselves independents, an uptick from two years ago, while 35 percent claim the Democratic label and 23 percent say they are Republicans. Among independents, 17 percent lean toward Democrats, while 12 percent lean toward the GOP.

Independents' viewpoints don't fit neatly into liberal or conservative frameworks.

This group hews more closely to Democrats than to Republicans on social values, religion, and national security. But it also is more conservative on several key issues, including the economy. And it's more skeptical than two years ago about expanding government assistance, a typically Republican position. But more in line with Democratic thinking, most independents support expanded government intervention into and regulation of the private sector, albeit reluctantly.

Analysts say the growing independent sector could slip from the Democrats' grasp as Obama pushes an ambitious agenda.

"We've moved from a less activist government to a more activist government, and the two-mindedness in the reaction of independents, I think, to some extent is response to that," Kohut said. That said, "Obama's doing very well with independents," Kohut added. "But they have some reservations . . . about growing government and about growing debt."

The GOP is in its weakest position in two decades of Pew polling: It's smaller, older, and heavily white, though not more conservative, even as the number of people who identify themselves as Republicans has declined precipitously.

Republicans are increasingly critical of their party, with only a quarter saying the GOP is doing an excellent or good job of standing up for lower taxes, smaller government, and conservative social values. The economy has overtaken social values among voters' most pressing concerns. The survey found the percentage of respondents holding conservative views on family, homosexuality, and gender roles has steadily declined over the past decade.