Barack Obama has taken a slight lead with white independent voters for the first time in the presidential race, positioning him to capture a key demographic group that has eluded recent Democratic nominees, according to a Politico analysis of independent voting patterns.
According to Gallup’s weekly average of some 6,400 registered voters, Obama now holds a 45 percent-43 percent edge over Republican John McCain with white independents. About eight in 10 independents are white.
Should Obama’s support hold, he is positioned to become the first Democrat to win white independents in a two-man race since the advent of exit polling.
As recently as last week, McCain led within this group by eight percentage points. His lead was as high as 16 points in mid-September, in the week before the stock market's first meltdown.
Obama’s gains with white independents, who represent more than one in five voters overall, are a particular problem for the GOP. Unlike four years ago, Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans heading into Election Day, and John McCain will need to win these voters to overcome the gap.
At the outset of the general election, Republicans were optimistic that McCain’s “maverick” image would make him an especially attractive candidate to independents. But it now appears that the recent economic crisis has undercut McCain’s appeal to this centrist bloc.
According to a recent Associated Press-GfK Poll, independents and Democrats tend to view recent market events with similar levels of alarm — 82 percent of independents and 89 percent of Democrats are concerned that the economic crisis will cause a “long-term toll on them,” compared with only 65 percent of Republicans.
Independents also join Democrats in viewing the next president’s capacity to handle the economy as more important than his capacity to handle national security, and both groups trust Obama more on the economy itself.
White independent women believe Obama can better improve U.S. economic conditions, 44 percent to 29 percent, while white independent men also have slightly more trust in Obama to handle the economy, 44 percent to 39 percent, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center. Obama holds even larger margins on the economic issue among white men and women classified by Pew as persuadable “swing voters,” the bulk of which are independents.
White voters overall believe that Obama would do the “best job of improving economic conditions,” 46 percent to 38 percent, according to Pew.
Obama's advantage on the economy stretches into voter concerns over gas prices. Fifty-five percent of white independent men and a plurality of white independent women, 40 percent, believe Obama would do the "best job" of "dealing with the nation's energy problems."
Still, white independents, like all white voters, remain suspect of the $700 billion bailout package supported by both Obama and McCain. Pew finds that overwhelming majorities of all whites, independents included, are concerned that the government is “too involved in financial markets,” that those responsible for the financial crisis are being “let off the hook” and that the bailout “won’t fix what caused problems.”
For McCain, there is some promise among this white independent cohort. Only about a third of independent white men and women believe McCain would “continue Bush’s policies,” while half of all independents — 57 percent of those who are white men and 47 percent, a plurality, of those who are white women — believe McCain would “take the country in a different direction.”
Independent white men also believe, 62 percent to 23 percent, that McCain is more capable of making “wise decisions about what to do in Iraq.” White female independents say the same, 52 percent to29 percent. More than six in 10 white independents believe McCain would do the “best job of making wise decisions about foreign policy.” These voters believe McCain could better defend against a terrorist attack by more than a 2-1 ratio. Taken as a whole, this data suggests that a national security or terrorism-related event could suddenly move these voters toward the Republican nominee.
Among independent whites, men are more prone to view Obama as not “well qualified” to be president, 57 percent to 37 percent. A slim majority of independent white women agree, though the margin is considerably narrower — 51 percent to 43 percent.