There they go again. The presidential campaign season is barely under way but already pundits and pollsters are making misleading claims about independent voters and the role they play in presidential elections. Here are some of the things you’ve probably read or heard in recent weeks:
- Independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate.
- Independent voters are up for grabs in 2012.
- Whichever party wins a majority of the independent vote will almost certainly win the presidency.
These beliefs about the crucial role of independent voters in presidential elections have become the conventional wisdom among the Washington commentariat, reinforced by groups like “No Labels” and “Third Way” that try to promote centrist solutions to the nation’s problems. Recently, the Pew Research Center provided additional support for this theory with a report claiming that independents constitute a rapidly growing and diverse group of voters who swing dramatically back and forth from election to election.
It sounds convincing, but when it comes to media commentary about independent voters, you shouldn’t believe everything you read or hear.
It’s true that independents are a diverse group. But that’s mostly because the large majority of independents are independents in name only. Research by political scientists on the American electorate has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are “closet partisans” who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate. Finally, independents don’t necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, in all three closely contested presidential elections since 1972, the candidate backed by most independent voters lost.
Let’s start with the claim that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. That’s true only if you lump all independents together including those who don’t vote and those who lean toward a party. In 2008, according to the American National Election Study, independents made up 40% of eligible voters but only 33% of those who actually voted. Moreover, of that 33%, only 7% were true independents with no party preference. The other 26% were leaners.
And what about those independent leaners? Fully 87% of them voted for the candidate of the party they leaned toward: 91% of independent Democrats voted for Barack Obama while 82% of independent Republicans voted for John McCain. That 87% rate of loyalty was identical to the 87% loyalty rate of weak party identifiers and exceeded only by the 96% loyalty rate of strong party identifiers.
It’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of independent leaners voted for their party’s presidential candidate in 2008. The evidence from the 2008 ANES in the following chart shows that independent Democrats and Republicans held very different views on major issues — views that were very similar to those of their fellow partisans. Independent Democrats were more liberal than weak Democrats and about as liberal as strong Democrats while independent Republicans were less conservative than strong Republicans but just as conservative as weak Republicans.
Chart 1. Liberalism of party identifiers and leaners in 2008
Source: 2008 American National Election Study
These results suggest that the high level of support given by independent leaners to their own party’s presidential candidate was not due simply to a short-term preference for that candidate over his opponent but instead reflected longer-term ideological and policy preferences. Based on this evidence, independent leaners are unlikely to be “up for grabs” in 2012. Regardless of who wins the Republican presidential nomination, we can expect the overwhelming majority of independent leaners, like the overwhelming majority of strong and weak identifiers, to remain loyal to their party because they strongly prefer their party’s policies to the opposing party’s policies.
Finally, no matter how independents vote in the 2012 presidential election, their preferences will not necessarily determine the winner. If the election is close, it is entirely possible that the candidate chosen by most independents will lose the overall popular vote.
Based on the national exit polls, that’s what happened in each of the last three presidential elections that were decided by a margin of less than five points.
In 1976, most independents voted for Gerald Ford but Jimmy Carter won the overall popular vote. In 2000, most independents voted for George W. Bush but Al Gore won the overall popular vote (despite losing the Electoral College). And in 2004 most independents voted for John Kerry but George W. Bush won the overall popular vote.
In a close election, a candidate with an energized and unified party base can sometimes overcome a deficit among independent voters. That doesn’t mean the candidates should ignore independents, but it does mean that unifying and energizing their own party’s base is just as important as appealing to the independents.