Don't Believe Media Hype on 'Independent' Voters
In the past few weeks, two news stories implied this year’s election could be determined by not only "independent" voters but a possible ‘independent’ presidential candidate.
The media hyped a Gallup Poll that indicates more than 40 percent of Americans identify as politically independent. Gallup also found that conservatives and moderates were neck and neck in the ideological contest in American politics.
Most recently, talk about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has resurrected a traditional discussion on independent runs for the White House, which typically never materialize.
With this year’s Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, and the intensity of polarization, it doesn’t take much imagination to inflate the “independents are the makers in American politics” bubble. Nevertheless, there’s enough reality to burst that bubble, especially when it comes to the glorified notion that the ‘moderate middle will save American politics.’
First, the discussion of the great bulk of Americans being politically independent, while at first glance true, is really masked by latent partisanship. Gallup asks, “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, an an independent?” Then, the 40-plus percent who identify as independent are asked a follow-up question, “As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?” Based on that follow-up, the mass of 44 percent deflates to 11 percent of the total respondents.
So, nearly 90 percent of Americans identify with one party over the other. That fact is buried in some stories about this poll.
When we move on to American political ideology, we can consider a spectrum between extreme liberalism through the moderate/middle of the road to extreme conservativism. While the ideological extreme “wings” seem to dominate the discussion in American politics, their numbers are significantly small for the voices they appear to command.
In the 2012 presidential election, of the 5,038 respondents to the American National Election Study (ANES) survey, a plurality (35 percent) identified themselves as “moderate” or “middle of the road,” with a typical bell curve distribution to either extreme of the ideological spectrum. Those who consider themselves the ‘extremes’ in ideological terms account for less than 10 percent of the total electorate in 2012.
In looking at how these moderates voted in the 2012 presidential election, they were the closest group to being divided, but still rather lopsided toward President Obama than Mitt Romney.
All of the other ideological respondents were much stronger in their support of the associated party and the presidential candidate, with only ‘slightly conservative’ respondents being at 71 percent support for Romney. All others were ninety percent or greater in their partisan support.
This ideological adherence fits with the partisan adherence when it comes to presidential vote choice: again, you will see 90 percent loyalty from the ‘strong partisans’ to those independents who lean to one party or the other in presidential vote choice.
If the ideological identification was combined with partisan identification, one could get a more concise sense of how the various components of the 2012 general electorate voted. In general, the collective party & ideological affiliation gives us a comprehensive view of voting loyalty: liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans gave more than 95 percent of their vote choice to their respective candidates.
But only among those near-extinct liberal Republicans did you see a competitive vote choice; still, nearly two-thirds of liberal Republicans supported Romney. Only among moderate independents, what one could label as the ‘pure’ middle of American politics, was the vote choice closest—and even then, a 58-42 split isn’t within the realm of a 55-45 percent ‘competitive’ designation.
But what if a third party runs a viable campaign this year?
In 2012, there were other candidates on the ballot, none of which ran a true national and viable campaign (sorry Libertarians). The ANES survey did give the option of indicating “other” in the presidential vote choice, and the results give a sense of where the greatest defections from the party loyalty may come from.
Liberal Independents (all 1.9 percent of the electorate) indicated a willingness to break from either party and vote for some other candidate: 28 percent of liberal independents voted for a candidate other than a Democrat or Republican.
But because of the smallness of that electorate, it would take all independents (amounting to nearly 13 percent of the electorate), combined with some splintering of the shrinking conservative Democratic and minuscule liberal Republican identifiers to even reach 20 percent of the potential national electorate.
It would make for an interesting scenario if we elected a president based on a national electorate, but presidential elections are won and lost within the various states. It would take some significant movements in the fewer and fewer battleground states by an independent candidate to disrupt the typical pattern of the states.
Now, if Michael Bloomberg decides to pump a billion dollars of his own into an election where Sanders and Trump are the standard bearers for the two parties, he might persuade more moderate ‘partisan loyalists’ to his candidacy, most likely coming from moderate Republicans and Democrats. Those strong partisan ideologues (liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans) will likely stay with their parties.
But it is far too soon to even speculate on what rules may be broken this year for the general election, especially after witnessing what has happened in both parties’ primaries so far.
The likelihood, however, is that party loyalty will most likely remain this year. The one potential roadblock is the level of frustration that may be evident within both political parties. We’ll have to wait for November to see how that is manifests itself.