…no matter how independents vote in the 2012 presidential election, their preferences will not necessarily determine the winner. If the election is close, it is entirely possible that the candidate chosen by most independents will lose the overall popular vote.
Based on the national exit polls, that’s what happened in each of the last three presidential elections that were decided by a margin of less than five points.
In 1976, most independents voted for Gerald Ford but Jimmy Carter won the overall popular vote. In 2000, most independents voted for George W. Bush but Al Gore won the overall popular vote (despite losing the Electoral College). And in 2004 most independents voted for John Kerry but George W. Bush won the overall popular vote.
In a close election, a candidate with an energized and unified party base can sometimes overcome a deficit among independent voters. That doesn’t mean the candidates should ignore independents, but it does mean that unifying and energizing their own party’s base is just as important as appealing to the independents.
This can’t be said often enough. See also Greg Marx, who catches Jim VandeHei and Allen exaggerating the significance of independents.