Posted by Brad @ 4:05 pm on December 19th 2009

The Myth of the Independent Voter

Is further crushed by John Sides, who finds the vast majority of independent voters to be loyal partisans, and true independents to make up about 7% of the electorate.


  1. There’s no reason why independents wouldn’t be leaners (the “pure independents” description seems to me to be unhelpfully narrow). Sides’ analysis works, in part, by restricting “Independents” to a smaller group than is meant by the people he quotes at the beginning, who seem to me to be making the normal, somewhat vague statements about voters that might, for some value of ‘might’, switch sides from their normal side. Presidential approval and votes, though, are the wrong places to be looking in any case, because in other elections the parties can adapt to local conditions and it’s there that partisanship will be weakest.

    The stuff about Obama approval is pretty weak, too. No surprise that, say, conservatives might tend to vote GOP and not like Obama. Indeed and in general, no surprise if, say, a Libertarian pretty much always votes Republican, or if another Libertarian pretty much always votes Democrat, on the national stage.

    It seems to me that the culprit is really imprecision in what we mean by “Independents”. It doesn’t mean they have no ideology, obviously, not that that ideology isn’t a much better match on the national scale with one party’s national platform than the others; that could easily be true on the local scale as well, but it seems to me that there’s more wriggle room at local level. It might be that “Independent” really means “votes on issue rather than loyalty” but in many cases the effects might in practice be the same other than when a particular candidate elevates some issues or adopts an anomolous position — from the point of view of party positions — on some traditionally important issues.

    Comment by Adam — 12/19/2009 @ 8:06 pm

  2. The question that would be important would be whether an independent voter who backs the party 90% of the time is more “independent” then a Republican or Democrat who bucks the party 10% of the time. The answer to that is no, of course. The second question is whether independents, by nature of their lack of D or R, are winnable for either D or R. In most cases, the answer to that is also no. Bill O’Reilly is a registered Independent, as is Bernie Sanders (I think James is too?). The critical finding from the Myth of the Independent Voter is that the vast majority of registered independents fall into those categories, rather than the lazy cachet they’re given as “partisan neutral” voters.

    Comment by Brad — 12/19/2009 @ 9:16 pm

  3. Well, it’s not “backs the party 90% of the time” overall, but rather “backs the Presidential candidate of that party 90% of the time”; I bet they’re significantly less loyal for other state-wide and other more local elections, but Presidential candidates tend to run on a fairly stable national platform.

    The registration of Independents isn’t that much use, as in many states you have to register to get to vote in a Primary (and if, for example, you live in NY or any of the other reliably blue or red states in Presidential elections, Primaries are the only action you really get and even then it’s often over by the time you get to vote).

    The winnable element of the Independents, where ‘winnable’ is set to some desired level, is going to be smaller than the total size of that set by an amount depending on where you set ‘winnable’. However, if we consider Independents as people who do not vote from party loyalty (as opposed to partisans that do) then they are in principle easier to win; the fact that they often aren’t won, to my mind, is more to do with the way that the selection of the Presidential candidates works which generally tends to try and focus on party orthodoxy and where in any case the selections process is primarily driven by partisans; to appeal to Independents might in many cases mean not appealing to partisans. In fact, we know this is true because it’s behind the normal Primary-General pivot where candidates do try to run back to the middle.

    Another thing I didn’t see is whether Independents might just vote or not vote depending on whether they were enthused.

    The 90% thing is misleading, because it’s not an unbiased sample from which selection was made; most Presidential choices, I would say (although I still think that attacking the “myth of the Independent voter” whilst looking only at Presidential elections is an error; what is being looked at is significantly narrower) are clear ones ideologically and looking at the party affiliation of that candidate and projecting the opinions of Independents onto that axis is a mistake if they are, in fact, primarily motivated by ideology, because it throws information away.

    Winning Independents is, of course, hard. Most Presidential elections come down to a small fraction of voters in any case, though, located in a subset of states, so ‘winning’ them may not be much of a switch and it’ll also be in part an issue of Independent turnout (because contained within “Independents” are presumably the “don’t care about politics or vote much” people). You don’t really need that many to win, but the process of shoring up your base vote and ensuring loyalist turnout will probably tend to make it harder to shift Independents; abandoning the base might make getting Independents much easier but then you’d be losing too many votes the other way. Because Independents are in theory a group that both sides compete for (unlike each other’s bases) it’s no surprise that the situation there gets ossified because if one side won them conclusively the other side would soon move to get a bunch of them back).

    However, I do think that “Independents” is a useful descriptor because it describes why people vote — or more particularly, what doesn’t primarily motivate their vote (party loyalty) — and that they might tend to vote the same way is, of course, no surprise at all. Something I do think is important (and makes Independents more valuable) is that you can also run for them without upsetting your own base easier than you can run for the elements of the other side’s partisans that might switch with the same regularity. The pivot back to the middle is going to be better than a pivot across the middle.

    Comment by Adam — 12/20/2009 @ 8:48 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.