New Name, Same Old Thing

Among political scientists, it’s well known that the “independent voter” is a myth. When pressed, the large majority of voters lean Democratic or Republican and tend to vote like partisans, consistently supporting their party of choice. The only difference between a strong partisan and a “weak partisan leaner” is that the latter are reluctant—for whatever reason—to place themselves in one camp or the other.

Over the last few years, this myth of the independent voter has taken hold among political journalists and others outside of academia. In its latest report on the 2012 election, centrist Democratic think tank Third Way perpetuates it. Instead of straightforwardly noting that the Obama campaign needs to reach for Democratic leaners, they’ve constructed the “Obama Independent,” which is basically the same thing:

In 2008, President Obama won 52% of Independent voters.1 All signs point to an even bigger role for them in 2012; in fact, our recent analysis of voter registration numbers in eight key battleground states shows that Democratic registration is down 5.6% since 2008, while Independent registration is up 3.4%.2 But many analysts lump all Independents together, when in fact there are currently two very distinct groups of Independent voters: those who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (“Obama Independents”) and those who voted for John McCain (“McCain Independents”).

According to Third Way, “Obama Independents” are the most moderate voters, with 60 percent identifying as such. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is the most liberal and 5 is the most conservative, these voters are 2.73 (compared to “McCain Independents”—weak Republican leaners—who score a 3.73).

Obama Independents were hardest hit by the recession in 2008, and a quarter of them voted for Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections. They are more likely to be women and—compared to the McCain group—less likely to be white. In addition, Obama Independents are younger than the typical voter, and also less religious.

Put another way, "Obama Independents" fit the profile of a Democratic-leaning voter, who might defect from the party in GOP wave years, but for the most part chooses the name with “D” next to it when in the voting booth.

There’s no need to hype Obama Independents as some new segment of the electorate, and indeed, the entire exercise is a little banal. Of course the Democratic presidential candidate needs to win a large majority of Democratic voters to win the presidency. That’s just how it goes.