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.