Independent Voters

April 18th, 2009

In Independent Voters and the President: Myths and Realities at Rasmussen Reports, Alan Abramowitz discussed the large gap between what most people think political independents are and what they really are.  The perception is that there’s a large group of independents who aren’t aligned with either party, and a candidate who fails to win over most of them is at great risk.  But that isn’t reality:

…the assumption that independents are non-aligned—that they are free thinkers who have no predisposition to support one party or the other—is inaccurate and misleading. Political scientists have long recognized that most self-identified independents are far from non-aligned. When pressed, the large majority of independents readily acknowledge that they lean toward one party or the other and these leaning independents think and act very much like regular partisans. So-called “pure independents,” those with no party preference whatsoever, make up a small minority of the public and an even smaller minority of voters since they turn out at a much lower rate than either party identifiers or leaning independents.

Abramowitz continued:

According to the 2008 American National Election Study, independents made up 40 percent of eligible voters and 33 percent of actual voters in the presidential election. However, in response to a follow-up question, 79 percent of independent voters indicated that they usually felt closer to one party or the other, with 44 percent leaning toward the Democrats and 35 percent leaning toward the Republicans. Only 21 percent of independent voters expressed no party preference and this group made up only 7 percent of the electorate. This was almost identical to the results for other recent elections. Pure independents made up only 8 percent of voters in 2000 and only 7 percent of voters in 2004. … 

Given their opinions on the issues, it is not surprising that leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for the candidate of their preferred party. The 91 percent of independent Democrats who voted for Barack Obama was almost identical to the 92 percent of regular Democrats who voted for Obama while the 82 percent of independent Republicans who voted for John McCain was only slightly lower than the 93 percent of regular Republicans who voted for McCain. …

What does all this mean in practical terms?  For one thing, it explains why political candidates and politicians in office looking toward the next election behave in certain ways.  You can be sure that most politicians and all of the political experts who advise them understand what independents really are.  They may sound like they don’t when they’re talking to journalists, but that’s because what they’re saying is part of a political calculation.

Everything the Obama Administration does is done with an eye on the 2012 election.  That’s just the way politics works.  According to Abramowitz:

The bad news for Mr. Obama is that without making major policy concessions that would alienate his own base, there is probably little he can do to win the support of either regular Republicans or independent Republicans. The good news for Mr. Obama is that because independent Democrats outnumber independent Republicans by about the same 5 to 4 ratio that regular Democrats outnumber regular Republicans, he has a good chance of maintaining a positive net approval rating if he continues to pursue policies that are supported by both regular Democrats and independent Democrats.

So for all of you who may have thought that Obama was a moderate sheep in leftist wolf’s clothing during the campaign, think again.  His record, what there is of it, and his past associations strongly indicate that he’s very liberal.  Since elected, he’s gone through the motions of bipartisanship, but neither he nor Democratic leaders in Congress are serious.  Instead, what he’s doing is pursuing a clearly leftist agenda—government control of business, nationalized health care, federal control of education, expanded support for abortion rights, more restrictive gun control, extremist responses to climate change, redistribution of wealth, deference to the UN, reduced reliance on traditional allies, increased acceptance of leftist and totalitarian regimes, and all the rest. 

As long as Obama stays on the left, but not so far left as to lose the support of moderate Democrats and independent Democrats, he’s likely to be re-elected.  And so far, it looks like he’s pretty comfortable in that position.

I like some of what President Obama is doing.  And I still support him and hope he’s successful because he’s the president we have, if not the one some of us would like to have (apologies to Mr. Rumsfeld).

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2 Responses to “Independent Voters”

  1. Kevin |

    I largely agree with Abramowitz. As a very long-time Independent who had been a member of the GOP before going Indie, I’ve had many conversations with Independents about just what an Independent is. Myself and others have, naively, attempted to galvanize Indie support for one partisan candidate or another only to end up frustrated at not seeming to make any headway.

    My only attempt was in early 2000 when I created The Independent Voter solely for the purpose of helping John McCain win the GOP nomination for President. When that didn’t pan out I reformatted the entire website to just be about political Indies. A few years later I ran across a blog created solely for the purpose of helping Howard Dean win the Democratic nomination for President. Their results mirrored mine.

    The answer to why those attempts went nowhere is that there are nearly as many reasons for being an “Independent” as there are Independents out there. IOW – common cause was a non-starter except among a minority, regardless of what common cause one is attempting to use as a rallying point.

    All of that said however, it would be a fundamental mistake to ass-u-me that Independents leaning one way or the other can therefore be presumed to think like the party faithful they lean towards. ‘Tis not the case! Many Independents take a perverse joy in refusing to conform. Period. Whether that be to mainstream perceptions or the expectations of the party they lean towards/against.

    As I say, I used to be a Republican. I left not so much because I’d changed as because they had changed and no longer represented me or my values. Oregon had a great tradition of producing progressive Republican leaders who enjoyed very strong public support even among conservative Democrats. They were similar to what used to be known as “Rockefeller Republicans” but with a distinctive Western populist streak. Then along came the so-called Reagan Revolution and the TheoCons and their NeoCon allies began practicing their scorched-earth GOP primary tactics. Republicans already in office were exempted and supported, but anyone coming up through the party pipeline was subjected to strict ideological purity tests. And folk like me simply left. Some became Democrats, but many just went Indie and continued to vote for progressive Republicans where and when they could – which is what I did.

    Despite having aligned myself closer to the Democrats over the last decade, I was deeply disappointed when Senator Lincoln Chaffee was defeated in 2006. And of course Senator Jim Jeffords mirrored my own partisan journey in 2001 when he ditched the GOP to become an Independent.

  2. Tom |

    I think Abramowitz is correct in general, and the data support him. But there’s probably more subtlety than he’s recognizing. For example, if Obama moved much further left, he would begin losing independent Democrats first and in greater numbers than Democrats in general. If he moved to the middle, he would begin losing true Democrats first and in greater numbers than independents.

    What the two parties really are, and what they represent, varies over time and regionally. I’ve never considered myself an independent because, I suppose, I’m not sure what it means, and in practical terms you almost always have to vote for one party or another in elections everywhere at almost all levels. In those cases where there are third-party candidates, voting for them is almost always a throw-away with sometimes unintended consequences. For example, Ross Perot was responsible for Bill Clinton’s election; Ralph Nader was responsible for Gore’s loss in Florida and of the presidency. Other factors were present, of course, but those third-party candidates alone made the difference.

    I’ve always called myself a Democrat, for whatever use that is, because I believe in the basic principles the party espouses, or at least espoused in the past. Functionally, though, I’m liberal on domestic issues and conservative on foreign policy (I won’t mention Scoop Jackson again; I learned my lesson last time!). And I end up voting for whomever I think is the best candidate, even though the choices are often odious.

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