Independents in the Year of Perot

By , John Benson is senior opinion analyst at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. Reviews of opinion data are a regular feature of "The Public Opinion and Demographic Report," which the center helps prepare for American Enterprise magazine.

THE expected presidential candidacy of Ross Perot has focused attention on the role of independent voters in American politics.

During the postwar era, independents have generally favored Republican presidential candidates by a wide margin. Since 1948, when independents split their vote between Truman and Dewey, only the 1964 Johnson landslide stands as an exception. Based on this, a strong independent candidacy could hurt George Bush relative to Bill Clinton in the fall.

As parties have weakened over the past half century, the number of independents has grown so that by some recent measures they make up a third or more of the adult population. A demographic profile shows that the young are more likely to be independents than their elders, whites more likely than blacks. The effect of education is complicated by the co-existence of two distinct kinds of independent: activist, highly educated people who pride themselves on making their own decisions, and apathetic, often l ess-educated people who don't care about the political process.

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Independents, on average, are less involved than their partisan counterparts in various aspects of American society. They read the newspaper less often, are less likely to attend religious services, and have less confidence in the ability of the federal government to solve problems.

On many issues, independents take the middle ground between Republicans and Democrats. But on certain questions such as abortion, civil liberties, and drug policy, they take a more libertarian stance than either Republicans or Democrats.

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