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Will independents really decide the election?

Much is made every presidential election year of the independent vote as candidates attempt to appeal to this voting bloc that doesn't identify with either Republican or Democratic ideals - or, perhaps, with a little bit from each. They might be fiscally conservative and socially liberal or they might want to exhibit their independence. Regardless, they are increasing in size and significance.

In the swing states, the number of independent or unaffiliated voters has risen since 2008. For instance, in Florida, the number of unaffiliated voters in 2008 was 2.1 million; this year it's 2.5 million - more than Republican and Democratic voter registration combined. North Carolina was home to 1.4 million unaffiliated voters in 2008 and 1.7 million now. Republicans there saw no gain in voter registration in the past four years and the Democrats only 100,000. Nevada boasts 40,000 more non-partisan voters this year while the Republicans lost 9,000 voters and the Democrats gained only 10,000. In Colorado, unaffiliated voters surpassed registered Republicans and Democrats. (Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin do not ask voters for party affiliation.)

The evidence behind the growing number of independents is abundant. A recent Pew Research poll from August shows a similar trend. Based on interviews with 13,000 registered voters across the country, one-third of respondents indentified as independents - an increase from 27 percent in 2004. Although personal identification does not equate to official voter registration status, the findings are clear: a large number of Americans are shifting away from political parties.

The trend has been on the upswing for decades. A separate Pew Research study from 2009 looks at party affiliation of all Americans based on Gallup surveys. It shows that only 15 percent of Americans identified as independent in 1945. The number gradually increased until its height in 2009, with 36 percent identifying as independents.

"What we found over the years is that party identification certainly shifts with events, but the most notable trend is the growing number who... reject partisan labels," said Michael Dimock, associate director of research at Pew. Dimock said the party association tends to decline as the public becomes disenchanted with the political process and political institutions and become frustrated with partisan politics - factors that don't help the incumbent.

Tired of eight years of a Republican presidency, independent voters shifted toward Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, who espoused a politics focused, as he famously said, not on blue states or red states but on the United States. It was a campaign theme that spoke to independent voters, who helped propel him to victory in 2008, winning 52 percent of independents to John McCain's 44 percent.

Recent polls, however, show that Mr. Obama will have a difficult time replicating those numbers this time. The latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll shows that Mitt Romney is leading among independent likely voters in Virginia by a striking 21 points. He is also leading among independents in Ohio by six points and 5 points in Florida.

Both Romney's and Mr. Obama's campaigns are separately touting their advantage in early voting in key battleground states. There are so many ways to spin the numbers it's difficult to determine who actually has the advantage. But it is just as difficult for the campaigns to know who the unaffiliated voters cast their ballots for. A Romney aide conceded that they look at polls to determine how independents are voting. With 18 percent of early voters in Florida not associated with the major political parties and 40 percent in Iowa not affiliated, it's a number that the campaigns have to worry about.

"It's not a good predictor for how people vote," CBS News' polling director Anthony Salvanto cautioned about registered independents, indicating that it's difficult to tell which party they back.

"The race is going to come down to independents. It's simply cold, hard math," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, adding that Romney is in a strong position to win that voting bloc. He points to a cadre of both national and swing state polls that show Romney leading among independents.

The Obama campaign has a more somber view insisting Wednesday that they "don't have to win" among independent voters to win in the election. The campaign pointed to swing state polls - albeit far fewer than the Romney campaign - that show the president winning among independents. "We're pulling enough of the independent votes in battleground states to win," Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said.

"Campaigns are aware of this and know they have to win these voters but are also a little bit awkward with them," said Linda Killian, author of "The Swing Vote, the Untapped Power of Independents". She says independent voters like bipartisanship and don't like negative ads. It's the reason candidates often soften their partisan message as the election gets closer. For instance, Romney has tailored many of his views since the Republican primary to project a moderate image of a candidate interested in bipartisanship.

Killian also pointed to independents' voting patterns. She says they don't think twice about voting for a Republican and Democrat in the same election. She points to a state like Virginia where Romney could win but so could Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine.

Some, however, contest that there are very few independent voters and despite voter registration and/or personal identification, they actually lean toward a political party. University of North Carolina journalism professor Ferrel Guillory told the Daily Tarheel that there is a "dwindling supply of actually independent voters and an increasing number that are taking sides."

Perhaps Guillory's explanation explains why polling for months has shown that there are very few undecided voters this election. But the fact that polls have shifted in recent weeks to show the race tied indicates that some of these voters can be persuaded to look a different direction.

"I do think not being willing to call yourself a Republican [or a Democrat], I think says something. It says something about the status of the parties and the frustration voters feel with the current political environment," said Pew Research's Dimock.

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