Half a century ago all but a quarter of you wished voters were aligned with one major party or another. Now, depending on the poll, the number of independents ranges between 30 and 40 percent. In some key states for the 2008 election, it's even higher and that could make a critical difference for some candidates in both parties.

Charles Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and joins us in our studios.

Charlie, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. CHARLES COOK (Editor; Publisher, The Cook Political Report): Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Now, independents used to be considered firmly in the center. Have they moved?

Mr. COOK: What happens is you've got a core of independents that really, honest to gosh, are independents. And then you've got some that actually kind of lean one way or the other; they love to call themselves independents. But when you push them, they'll go one way or the other. And those are the people that really matter in these elections where we're in a much more polarized time of voting than ever before. And the Republican vote is very hard; the Democratic vote is very hard; very few defections. It's the independents that make the difference.

SIMON: Now, would we be wrong to think that independents are all aligned together? That - because I'm impressed by - if you take a look at the polls, immigration is as important an issue as the war in Iraq to a lot of independents.

Mr. COOK: They don't have a necessarily value system that is similar to either of the parties. And as a result, they kind of check in and check out on issues, and it's kind of weird to see which ones they feel are important and which aren't. But they're funny animals. I mean, they really react to different things, and you can't always predict which issues they will seize on and which ones they'll just sort of shrug off and not care about.

SIMON: Now, New Hampshire has a high percentage of independents.

Mr. COOK: Forty-two percent of all the voters in New Hampshire are independents. That's what makes the New Hampshire primary so tricky. And they can vote in the Democratic primary. They can vote in the Republican primary. And it's not unusual for at least 41, 2, 3 percent of the voters in either party's primary to actually be independents and not party members.

SIMON: Are there any other states in the early primary calendar where independents might really play a significant role.

Mr. COOK: Not so much. It's - I mean, New Hampshire is the big kahuna.

SIMON: Among Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton is perceived, I guess polls, doing somewhat less well with the independents. Could this become an issue? Is it one of Senator Obama's potential strengths?

Mr. COOK: If Obama is going to be able to break through, it will be with the independents. The question is, can Obama survive a second-place finish in Iowa and get to a New Hampshire where those independents could really help him out?

SIMON: Mm-hmm. What about on the Republican side? You mentioned Mayor Giuliani has some strength among the independents.

Mr. COOK: Yes. I mean, because he's not a traditional Republican, and all of us are just scratching our heads because if Rudy Giuliani were to get the Republican nomination, it would mean that everything we ever learned about Republican nomination politics turned out to be wrong. I mean, pro-choice, support of gun controls, support of some gay rights, I mean…

SIMON: I really admire you for saying that.

Mr. COOK: Yeah. Well, although the thing about it is for the longest time I was saying I will win the Tour de France before Rudy Giuliani wins a Republican nomination. And I'm a pretty chunky guy. But I'm looking at this guy in - you know, he's got at least a 50 percent chance now…

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. COOK: But the thing is he's got a very peculiar draw, but something is going on inside the Republican Party.

SIMON: McCain, at one point, obviously had great franchise among independents, what about his strength with them?

Mr. COOK: The problem that McCain had was he was a maverick and a straight shooter and all that back in 2000. And he learned that mavericks don't win party nominations. And so McCain spent in the last six, seven years trying to become a team player, but in doing that suddenly all the people that liked the maverick John McCain don't like him so much anymore. And yet sort of the legacy team players, they still don't quite trust him. So I think he's given up some of that poll from independents.

SIMON: Charlie Cook, who's editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, thanks very much.

Mr. COOK: Thanks, Scott.

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