Independents Are Still a Myth

The centrist Democratic think tank Third Way has a new paper disputing the contention—from political scientists—that independents are a myth, and most voters lean in one direction or the other:

While analysts have often looked at Independents who lean one way or the other in a single election and concluded they are simply “closet” partisans, in reality those who label themselves Independent are much more likely to switch parties, and their votes, over time, from election to election. In this memo, we demonstrate that while some Independents may lean toward a certain party and vote for that party’s candidate in that same electoral cycle, when you follow the same people across multiple elections, a very different pattern emerges: these leaners don’t fall with their partisan friends.

The core of Third Way’s argument depends on a medium-term study of voters from 2000 to 2004, where they show that independent leaners—voters who have an orientation toward one party or the other—swing between parties, which runs contrary to the political science view that leaners are indistinguishable from partisans in their voting habits:

In 2000, 73% of Democratic-leaning Independents voted for a Democrat and only 27% for a Republican. This seems to confirm conventional wisdom—Independents largely vote for the party they lean towards. But by 2002, only 54% of Democratic Leaners were voting for the party and 46% had defected; by 2004, 38% of Democratic Leaners were GOP voters. When we follow the same voters across successive elections, the data clearly revealed that leaners are not party loyalists.

But this doesn’t actually prove Third Way’s point. For starters, all voters aren’t created equally, and Democratic voters in the Northeast are significantly different from Democratic voters on the West Coast or Democratic voters in the South. To wit, there’s a fair chance that leaners in the South are likely to belong to the cohort of voters who are transitioning from Democratic identification to complete allegiance to the Republican Party.

These voters are thoroughly conservative, and don’t support Democrats in statewide or presidential elections, but because of historic circumstance, still belong to the party. If this is the case, then Third Way hasn’t found evidence of genuine independent voters as much as they’ve captured the messiness of party identification in the formerly solid South.

Beyond all of this, it’s also true that Third Way has ignored the wave elections of 2006 and 2008, where voters gave Democrats the White House, as well as large majorities in the House and Senate. It’s possible, and likely, that some “swing voters” identified by Third Way moved back to the Democratic column and remained there, which suggests that they do act in ways similar to weak partisans.

It should be said that even if independents are genuinely independent, it says nothing about the kind of policies President Obama—or Mitt Romney—should propose. Most voters evaluate incumbents on the basis of their personal circumstances—whether they have a job and whether they have money in their pockets. Tepid, middle-ground policies don’t appeal to independents, and have the downside of angering activists, advocates, and the voters who actually lay the groundwork for victory.

Comments

Independent voters are still unable to be candidates for office because of un-Constitutional state election laws that make it too difficult for independent voters to get on the ballot. That does not make them a myth or party leaners or any of the other classifications that political parties put them in. It means if they are going to vote, they have to vote for party candidates until they gain ballot access. At 43% of all voters at the present time, once they gain seven more percentage points, they will outnumber all political party members in the United States. Then we will see if the parties can still keep independent voters from becoming candidates for office.

Sorry, but you've not disproven anything that was contained in my report. Rather you dismiss my data driven analysis with "it is likely." We followed the same folks across 3 very different election cycles and showed that independent leaners are not the same as partisans. They are not as loyal. Even if they did vote Democratic in 2006 or 2008 (and I wish the panel had been extended to cover those years) it would not disprove our point. The coalition is not stable. We also show that independent partisan have different policy preferences... they break with established party dogma. Independent voters are real and they ultimately determine election outcomes and are the key to a sustained governing majority for Democrats - if the party will embrace the middle.

43% of the voters are now registered independent. Once they gain seven more percentage points, there will be more independent voters than party members. Unlike party members, independent voters are free to have whatever political beliefs they choose to have.
Since party politicians have independent voters stopped from running for office as independent candidates, the thing that all independent voters want is free and open elections, something that the two major parties say is not going to happen. They control the Supreme Court, which has refused to hear a case brought by a minor party or independent voter for more than twenty years. Federal courts automatically rule to uphold the un-Constitutional state election laws that keep independents from running for office.
So independent voters do not exist, right?
The problem you have is that party politicians have been less successful in their attempts to stop independent voter registration. The last time they tried here in Arizona was in 2005 when they took the option to register independent off of the Arizona voter registration form. Independent voter registration immediately went from 80,000 per year to 13,000 per year, and party politicians were gloating that they had solved the problem of independent voters in Arizona. But now it is seven years later, and independent voter registration is back to its former level, while both major parties are losing voters in Arizona.
Here is the heart of the matter. Independent voters were created by the writing and adoption of the Constitution of the United States. The government existed from 1776 until 1800 without organized political parties. Both Washington and Adams warned Americans not to support political parties. Political parties, as George Washington said, are self-created societies. They are not the government of the United States.

Please see the response from Third Way here: http://perspectives.thirdway.org/?p=1578

With due respect, as a die-hard Independent voter who does not wish to identify with the Democrats because I feel you are not left enough on social issues (and are too pro-war and not economically libertarian enough), I do not take kindly to my identity being erased.

The media generally exhorts Americans to choose a side, and skewers "fence-sitters" like myself. I have a very specific set of beliefs on every single political issue imaginable, and I look at all of them before I vote.

In local elections, you would find me voting nearly straight-ticket Republican, for example, and conclude I am most strongly aligned with the GOP. In Presidential elections, you'd nearly always find me voting for the Democratic candidate and conclude just the opposite. But making either assumption is folly. Just because I may prefer one party over the other in any given type of election or election year does not mean I hold any sort of party allegiance.

While I am disgusted with Obama on many matters of foreign policy, citizens' privacy rights, and economic matters, I also feel his strategy to play to the center is politically sound, and so far, seems to be working in his favor, while further marginalizing the GOP as the 'party of NO.' I may not agree with all of his positions or all of his policies, but I can hardly argue with his strategy. It is sound.

I find this phenomenon of trying to explain away the fact that 40% of Americans have decided to identify as independent, interesting. The defensiveness and absurdity from which these arguments are being thrown around, gives us good reason to believe that some of the political pundits and mouthpieces for the two major parties are a bit baffled about what to do about the growing outcry vs. partisan politics. Not only do they want to make all the rules (which they do which is why independents tend to vote for the only choices they have), but they also want to ignore the fact that even though they may vote for certain candidates, independents sill do not choose to become Democrat or Republican, they choose to be independent - this despite the fact that when you become independent, you lose a whole host of voting rights. From my experience as a longtime organizer of the independent movement (check out www.independentvoting.org), I don't believe that independents are centrists - we're all over the political spectrum. I think what brings us together is our dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and our desire to choose our preferences according to the best options for the citizens of this nation, not what's good for the parties. But I kind of like hearing the crying of those of the likes of this author (and Ruy Teixeira who just wrote a scathing review of Linda Killian's book The Swing Voter) - because it means that our movement must be growing, and perhaps their getting just a little more uneasy because of that.

gwenmand

There is nothing the parties can do. Their best efforts to stop independent voter registration have all failed. Whenever they try, the people find out and there end up being more independent voters than if voter registration had just been left alone. The last attempt here in Arizona was in 2005 when Gov. Janet Napolitano signed into law a Senate bill to take the option to register independent off from the Arizona voter registration form with the following effect on independent voter registration.

2000-2002 107,715
2002-2004 165,771
2004-2006 26,384

Now it is seven years later, and independent voter registration is back where it was, while both major parties are losing voters in Arizona. As soon as independent voters start becoming candidates for office, the two major parties are done in this country. They have done nothing for two hundred years except enrich themselves on national credit. Americans need to start paying their debts. These two major parties are too expensive to leave in power. Independent voters do not cost the people anything.

Your article shows you have a lot of background in this topic. Can you direct me to other articles about this? I will recommend this article to my friends as well. Thanks
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