INDEPENDENTS…. It’s fairly common in the media for self-described “independents” to be held up as magical arbiters of sensible centrism. If Republicans move too far to the right, the argument goes, they’ll lose the “independents” in the middle. If President Obama’s approval rating with “independents” is slipping, the media tells us, it must be because he’s too liberal.

Digby had a good item today on how misguided this common line of thinking is. (via Atrios)

I realize that the villagers think there is some sort of “median” moderate voter who believes that the answer to all of our problems lies somewhere between the positions of the two parties. But that’s not necessarily the independent’s position. They don’t like either party true, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they yearn to split the difference. In fact, I suspect that a large number of them are apolitical people who don’t really understand politics at all and simply reject whoever is in power when things aren’t going well, without regard to party. […]

The number of independents out there is quite large and all national politicians need to reach them in elections in order to win. But the knee jerk assumption that they are always more moderate than everyone else is probably wrong. They might just be more cranky, more cynical, more uninformed, more skeptical or more impatient.

I’m reminded of something Matt Yglesias said a while back: “Many independents are actually partisans. Many others just have no idea what they’re talking about. A few really do pay attention and swing anyway.”

Right. Independents are generally characterized as centrists, but the Washington Post published a lengthy analysis of political independents in July 2007, based on a survey conducted the Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The research didn’t exactly break a lot of new ground, but it was a reminder that, among independents, there’s an enormous amount of political diversity.

Strategists and the media variously describe independents as “swing voters,” “moderates” or “centrists” who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label. […]

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

With that in mind, talking about what “independents” are thinking is all-but impossible. Characterizing them as frustrated moderates is a lazy way of thinking.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.