Stephen Brashear/AP Photo
Anti-Obama sentiment has helped shift independent voters towards Republicans and away from the Democrats who control Congress.
Stephen Brashear/AP Photo
The fight between Democrats and Republicans to control Congress and the White House at this point in the 21st Century comes down to winning over enough independent voters.
And Thursday there was sobering news for Democrats on that front. Republicans appear to be winning that contest at the moment, according to a new survey of independent voters by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center discussed the poll's findings with All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel. Again, there wasn't much positive data to cheer up Democrats.
The "let's throw the bums out" pattern which independents have settled into in recent election cycles looks likely to be reinforced in the upcoming mid-term elections, unless Democrats can significantly increase the energy level of their voters and their turnout.
Pew surveyed 2,800 registered voters, 37 percent of whom were independents.
KOHUT: The number of independents in the countries is at one of the high points in the last 20 years. Only 34 percent were independent in 2008. it's a growing category of people who aren't comfortable with either party.
ROBERT: But it seems like they're especially uncomfortable with the Democrats this year.
KOHUT: They are uncomfortable with the Democrats because they represent the party in power. And they say they are going to vote for Republican candidates by a 13 point margin, 49 (percent) to 36 (percent.)
But in the two previous elections they voted Democratic, voting against the party of power, 52 (percent) to 44 (percent) in 2008 and (in 2006) voting for the Democrats rather than the Republicans who controlled the House, 57 (percent) to 39 (percent).
... They've been untethered lately. The most we can say about them consistently is they haven't been pleased and they are certainly not pleased in 2010.
Much of what's dragging down congressional Democrats is unhappiness with the man in the White House, President Barack Obama, according to Kohut. Since he's not up for re-election, independents indicate they intend to take out their frustrations on Democrats, which underscores why many Democratic candidates would prefer not to campaign with him.
KOHUT: Among independents, only 40 percent approve of President Barack Obama. And what we see is a significant number of independents -- 29 percent -- saying they will be casting a vote against President Obama when they vote for congressional representatives in November.
That's almost as many who said that about George Bush four years ago when he was so unpopular and that unpopularity led to Republicans losing control of the House.
Unlike Bush, who faced opposition because of the Iraq War and the controversial methods his administration used to combat terrorism -- Guantanamo, secret renditions etc., Obama's problems stem mainly from the economy.
ROBERT: Do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan play any significant role in forming people's opinions?
Foreign policy and social issues are pretty low on the public's agenda. This is about the economy and national conditions.
You know we have in this poll 50 percent of the independts we poll saying that someone in their household was either unemployed or looking for job in the last 12 months. That's a pretty powerful number.
While the Tea Party movement is by various measures growing in power, it doesn't necessarily hold sway over many independents, according to Kohut.
KOHUT: They're divided on the Tea Party. Almost as many say they agree with them -- 32 percent -- as say they disagree with them except among the independents who are disposed to the Republicans... For many independents, the Tea Party just doesn't measure up.
Pew picked up a tendency towards increasing conservatism and a desire for smaller government within the population of independents as well.
For many of these voters, it seems the health-care overhaul legislation may have pushed them over the edge, he said.
In four years, the percentage of independents who call themselves conservative grew to 36 percent from 29 percent. Kohut indicated that was a significant increase.
KOHUT: Independents lean against health care by a small margin. But health-care reform for many of the independents who are conservative, raised the profile of large government... So it is a very significant player both with regard to views about health-care reform specifically and how it changed in one year, Barack Obama's first year, the disposition to see an activist government take on the nation's problems.
The only hope for Democrats, considering the headwind they're facing from the shift of independents away from them is to raise the number of Democratic-leaning independents and Democrats who turn out to vote in November.
ROBERT: Republicans looking at these numbers would obviously be encouraged about November. Is there any faint encouragement somewhere in their for Democrats.
KOHUT: The hope for Democrats is that they can energize independents who are disposed to the Democratic Party and Democrats themselves because both lag in terms of their inclination to vote. If they do that they can draw closer to Republicans and reduce the number of seats that they seem likely to lose.