Hillary Clinton holds a slim advantage with independents, a group Republican Mitt Romney won by five percentage points in 2012, with almost half the voters in the crucial bloc saying renewed scrutiny of her e-mail won’t impact their vote.
Likely voters who don't identify with either party represented 29 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election and now back Clinton over Donald Trump 39 percent to 35 percent in a head-to-head contest, the latest Purple Slice online poll for Bloomberg Politics shows. When third-party candidates are included, she holds a three-point edge.
The findings, just days ahead of the election, suggest Trump is still struggling to rebuild even the losing coalition Romney assembled, despite modest gains he's made in recent polls. The Republican needs to expand his support beyond his core white, working-class voters, yet that doesn't appear to be materializing even in the wake of a bad campaign week for Clinton.
“This is a very tight race among independents, who are finding themselves alienated from both major party candidates as well as both parties as they make their final choice,” said pollster Doug Usher, who led the survey.
Independents are always important in presidential elections, although they don't always predict the winner. Romney won more support from them in 2012, even as President Barack Obama cruised to re-election. Four years earlier, they backed Obama by eight percentage points to help propel him into the White House.
The poll was conducted Friday through Monday. It was started after Friday's news that FBI Director James Comey had alerted members of Congress that agents had discovered a new batch of e-mails that could be part of an earlier investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail system while she was secretary of state.
The e-mails were discovered on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of close Clinton aide Huma Abedin. There’s been little information since the initial report about what the messages were or how they might fit into the framework of the past inquiry.
The survey shows 47 percent of likely independent voters say the latest developments around Clinton's e-mail won't have an impact on their vote. A quarter of the those polled, meanwhile, say it will make them more likely to support Trump, although those respondents are already heavily concentrated among people voting for him.
Among those supporting Clinton, only one percent said the FBI report makes them more likely to switch to Trump, while 73 percent of her supporters say it has no impact on their voting.
Gary Johnson could benefit some from the latest Clinton e-mail developments, with one in 10 likely independent voters saying the situation makes them more inclined to back the Libertarian nominee in a four-way race. The former New Mexico governor is backed by 19 percent overall, while Green Party nominee Jill Stein has the support of eight percent.
More than eight in 10 likely independent voters say they've heard some or a great deal about FBI's decision to publicize the e-mail's discovery, an action that's been criticized by the Clinton campaign as last-minute meddling in a presidential race. A 52 percent majority of independent voters say Comey's actions were fair, while 31 percent say unfair and 17 percent aren't sure.
Conducted Oct. 28-31 by Washington-based Purple Strategies, the survey was done using a nationally representative online opt-in panel of 601 participants. It has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for the top-line results and higher for subgroups.
The poll is the final in a series done by Bloomberg Politics on key slices of the electorate that will help determine the election's outcome. The previous survey, in September, found Trump narrowly trailing Clinton among higher-income voters.
More than one in 10 independents, 14 percent, say they've already cast their ballots and Clinton is leading by a more than 2-to-1 margin with those voters. Overall, 56 percent of independents predict she'll win.
The group remains more fluid than more partisan voters. In the four-way race, 16 percent of likely independent voters say they remain undecided roughly a week before the election, roughly three times the share in a Bloomberg Politics national poll taken in mid-October.
At the same time, almost two-thirds of likely independent voters who have picked a candidate say they're absolutely certain to vote for that person. Among those who say there is still a chance they might vote for another candidate, Trump and Johnson get slightly more support than Clinton and Stein.
Among independents who can't be pushed to lean more Republican and more Democratic—Usher calls them “pure independents”—Clinton wins 26 percent, followed by Johnson at 24 percent, Trump at 22 percent, and Stein at nine percent.
By a 2-to-1 margin, 66 percent to 33 percent, independents backing Clinton in the four-way race say their vote is cast more in opposition to Trump than for her. For those supporting Trump, 54 percent say it's more about stopping Clinton, while 41 percent say it's more about backing him.
Both candidates are deeply unpopular with independent voters. She's viewed favorably by 28 percent, while 26 percent feel that way about Trump.
On presidential qualities tested, Clinton scores better than Trump on fighting for the middle class, caring “about people like me,” having the right temperament, being ready to lead on “day one in office,” getting things done in Washington, being a role model for children, sharing the same values, and having the right skills for foreign policy.
Trump did better on having new ideas for the future, knowing what it takes to create jobs, reining in the power of Wall Street, changing the way Washington does business, being trustworthy, being honest, combating terrorist threats, and sharing the same views on dealing with undocumented immigrants.
While independents by definition aren't fond of either political party, they're feeling slightly more down on Republicans than Democrats after watching the 2016 campaign unfold, 71 percent to 65 percent.
Clinton is viewed by independent voters as being much more in line with the mainstream of her party than Trump is with his, 61 percent to 13 percent.
Independents are mostly divided on whether the media is giving enough or too much coverage to certain topics that have emerged during the campaign.
Four in 10 say too much time has been devoted to women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment and abuse, while 22 percent say not enough and 31 percent say just right. They're nearly equally divided on the levels of coverage of Clinton's e-mail and Trump's charitable giving, business dealings, and tax returns. One area where a slightly larger share of independents—41 percent—say there should be more coverage is concerns about “pay-to-play fundraising” by the Clinton Foundation.
Among independent voters supporting Clinton or Trump, 54 percent say the reason they aren't backing a third-party candidate is because they'd view it as a wasted vote in a country dominated by a two-party system.
The chairman of Purple Strategies, Alex Castellanos, has been hired by a super political action committee backing Trump that has no connection to the firm. He has no involvement in the planning or execution of Bloomberg’s polls with Purple and sees the results only when they are published.