They are the swing voters of the ultimate swing state.
Florida's independent voters are either too conservative for the Republican Party, too liberal for the Democrats — or too, well, independent for either. They are all over the political map — an apt reflection of Florida, a state with a little bit of everywhere else.
But ultimately, they'll cast the deciding votes that guarantee President Barack Obama a second term or help Mitt Romney unseat him.
Public-opinion surveys have swung left and right with the mood of independents. But they're starting to settle on Romney.
A Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald survey found Romney winning 49-43 among independents.
An unscientific Miami Herald email survey of 2,051 registered no-party-affiliation voters who cast absentee ballots found they favored Obama 51-44 percent.
The responses generated from the email survey helped show what makes independents tick — and what ticks them off.
"I have vowed to never again vote for a candidate with a 'D' or an 'R' after their name. They are nothing but tools of the big corporations and their lobbyists," Bob Knott, a Freeport voter said.
"Unfortunately, some people in your industry incur a big portion of the blame for this situation."
Knott's sentiment spanned the political spectrum, with some calling the media too conservative and others thinking it's too liberal.
The email survey mirrored scientific polls in this regard: It showed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson faring much better than Obama, beating U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV. A handful of voters said they were voting for Romney and Nelson, with one describing Mack's campaign as pathetic.
Many of the independents sounded as if they were more motivated to vote against a candidate — mainly Obama or Romney — and less interested in actually voting for their candidate of choice, whether it was Romney or Obama. "We need jobs and economic growth," wrote Chris Highmark, a Collier County voter, who cast his absentee ballot from Paradise Valley, Ariz.
"Obama's tax policies will not only lead to a recession in 2013," Highmark wrote, "but will suffocate future economic growth as both large and small businesses will not take the risks needed to grow the economy because the potential rewards will not overcome the risks."
The voices of independents have become increasingly important in Florida for two major reasons:
• No Party Affiliation is the fastest growing major party in Florida since 2008, even though it's not a party at all. Over the past four years, the ranks of NPAs have grown 22 percent to 2.6 million. That's 22 percent of the roughly 12 million people on the total active voter rolls, which increased just 6 percent overall. The Democratic Party, the largest in Florida, grew only 1 percent, and the Republican Party's ranks increased just 4 percent.
• The fastest-growing racial or ethnic segment of the electorate is Hispanic, with 14 percent of the total rolls and rising fast. Of the more than 300,000 new Hispanic voters on the rolls in the past four years, 46 percent became NPAs, 43 percent became Democrats and only 11 percent became Republicans. Less than 1 percent signed up with a third party, whose voters are typically considered independents as well because they're independent of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Untethered to a political party, however, independents are proportionately less likely to vote than Republicans or Democrats. As of Saturday morning, independents had cast about 690,000 absentee and in-person votes. That's about 18 percent of the total 4 million early ballots. Democrats have cast nearly 43 percent and Republicans about 40 percent.
The Florida independent votes are particularly crucial to Romney's national election hopes. The Republican needs to win Florida more than Obama because a Florida win for a Democrat gives him three of the four most-populous states — a nearly insurmountable lead in the Electoral College.
The major political parties still hold all the political power and clout because they're organized and have a grip on power in the Legislature and Congress, which allows them to continue raising money from the special interests that the lawmakers regulate.
Democrats hold a 4.5 percentage point edge over registered Republicans in Florida, but because so many North Florida Democrats vote conservatively, the state is more conservative than it appears, said Brad Coker, pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the latest Times/Bay News 9/Herald poll of 800 likely voters that was released Friday night.
The telephone survey showed Romney leading overall, 51-45 percent, and was conducted Tuesday through Thursday for the Times, Bay News 9, the Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Central Florida News 13. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
"It's almost impossible to win Florida without winning the independent vote," Coker said. "They are the swing voters."
And they swung wildly against Obama in October after his first debate, which the president lost badly to Romney.
Before the debate, Obama was nursing an inside-the-error margin lead over Romney in Florida, in part because the president was carrying independents by 11 points.
Then the debate happened.
Independents shifted a cumulative 24 points in Romney's favor, so that he then led by 13 among them. The president cut that lead to 6 in the last poll.
But it isn't enough to overcome the damage from that first debate.
"Fact 1: Received absentee vote same day as Romney vs Obama debate #1. Easy decision," wrote Gainesville independent Steven J. Black.
"Fact 2. Have watched Mack get his wrists get nailed through by the … media with no rebuttal," wrote Black, a military retiree, who suggested that Mack's campaign was like a soldier who went AWOL. "Mack's campaign is well beyond desertion."
Some who voted for Obama didn't sound motivated to support the candidate; instead they sounded as if they were spooked by conservatives.
"The Republican Party's behavior as a whole, including the methods used to purge the voter rolls nationwide, and the meddling in the judiciary in the State of Florida, really turned me off," Angela Roughton, a Miami Beach absentee-ballot voter, wrote.
"If I was a competitive sportsman, perhaps I would grasp the concept of winning at all costs," she said. "The center is the place for me."
Some who voted for Romney had similar concerns about some aspects of the conservative movement.
"I wish candidates would stay out of social issues like abortion and religion and stick to the economy and defense," wrote Dennis O'Malley, a Pinellas County resident who cast his ballot for Romney from Washington, N.H.
Sarasota independent Alan Boorstein couldn't bring himself to vote for either Obama or Romney. He voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson and Nelson for Senate.