Independents leaning Democratic

Michael Brooks is exactly the kind of voter the Republican Party can ill afford to lose. But in a foreboding omen for 2008, it may have already done just that.

The auto parts store worker from St. Charles, Mo., says he used to be a Republican but felt abandoned and is now an independent.

“For some reason or other, they didn’t seem to be for the masses anymore,” said Brooks, 59, citing a lack of help for middle-income earners. He said he voted for George W. Bush in 2000, thinking the Republican was “more middle of the road, for the people. Obviously I was incorrect.”

Brooks is not alone. From coast to coast, independent voters tilt tellingly toward Democrats in their opposition to the Iraq war, their displeasure with Bush and their feeling that the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to data from recent Associated Press-Ipsos polls.

That could be decisive in next year’s contests for the White House and Congress, starting with the crucial early presidential primaries in New Hampshire.

The portion of that state’s registered voters not enrolled in a political party has grown to 44 percent. While people can vote in either major party’s primary, more are expected to choose the Democratic contest. That potentially would boost antiestablishment candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., while leaving the GOP race more in the hands of the party’s traditional conservative voters.

National exit polls show that after leaning toward Republicans by 48 percent to 45 percent as recently as the 2002 elections, independents began shifting toward Democrats.

“This is a serious problem” for Republicans, says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “We didn’t get where we are among independents overnight. The data does suggest that it’s going to take us some time to earn those votes back.”