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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Independents Day

It’s safe to say that the character and relative importance of self-described independent voters is one of those topics that endlessly divide political junkies. You hear the wildest array of assertions about indies: they’re the Keys to the Kingdom; they’re irrelevant; they’re confused and conflicted; they’re sophisticated; they’re centrists; they’re a radical fringe; they actually behave just like partisans; they’re the nucleus of a potential third party; they vote; they don’t vote, and so on and so forth, world without end.
Sunday’s Washington Post featured a new survey on independents, done in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard, and it helps sort through the partial truths in many of these commonly heard descriptions. Pace Matt Yglesias, who dismissed the survey as uninteresting due to the bland generalities in the accompanying cover story, I think it’s rewarding once you drill down a bit.
You should read the whole, elaborate thing, but the great utility of this survey is its typology of independents, who are neatly divided into five “D’s”: Disengaged (24%), Disguised Partisans (24%), Deliberators (18%), Disillusioned (18%) and Dislocated (16%).
The first two categories are self-explanatory. Deliberators are the classic, true swing voters, likely to vote, open to persuasion, and fond of bipartisanship. The Disillusioned are angry at both parties, require persuasion or mobilization to vote, and are the best third-party bait. And the Dislocated are people with well-defined views that straddle party lines (typically social liberals and fiscal conservatives, though some are the opposite).
As a group, indies currently lean Democratic, and voted that way in 2006; they are most in line with Democrats in their disdain for the Iraq War and their interest in issues like health care (they are also significantly closer to Democrats than Republicans on every question dealing with national security). Demographically, they are fairly typical of voters at large, though they tend to be less religious. Unsurprisingly, they are more open to third-party candidacies than regular partisans, though they are not overwhelmingly vibrating at the idea of a Bloomberg presidential run.
In terms of the size of the independent sector, this poll shows 29% of adults identifying as indies, a bit lower than in most recent polls, but closer to the 27% of actual voters who identified that way in the 2006 exit polls. Since nearly half of the indies in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey are either likely non-voters or are actually partisan, we’re talking about something on the order of 15% of the electorate that’s truly independent–not a giant segment, but potentially decisive nonetheless.
Though the Post analysis doesn’t get much into the implications of the survey for 2008, the typology suggests a Democratic strategy of attracting the Disillusioned with a strong “change” message; connecting with the Dislocated through sharp contrasts with Republican social conservatism while maintaining fiscal credibility; and winning Deliberators with superior policy ideas for solving big problems, if possible across party lines.
At present, there’s nothing at all about such a strategy that makes it difficult to reconcile with efforts needed to mobilize a highly motivated and partisan Democratic base. But as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira pointed out in their recent American Prospect piece on the Democratic coaliton (“Back To the Future”), there may be significant long-range tensions if Democrats regain power and begin to rub many indies the wrong way with their deployment of government power.
Overall, the survey casts a lot of light on some of the more outlandish claims about indies. They are not frauds or irrelevant, to be sure, but they are also not a centrist monolith that Democrats can win simply by moving to the right on this or that issue. As of this moment, it appears the main indie worry about Democrats is not that they are too dovish on national security, but that they are too reckless fiscally and too much a part of the misgoverning status quo. But by definition, independents are fluid politically, and bear a lot of watching in the months and years to come.

One comment on “Independents Day

  1. Retrogrouch on

    And the Dislocated are people with well-defined views that straddle party lines (typically social liberals and fiscal conservatives, though some are the opposite).
    Why should Democrats take the Democratic Strategist seriously when you write such things. Social liberalism and fiscal conservatism may straddle many things but party lines isn’t one of them.
    I certainly don’t want to waste any more of my valuable time reading your drivel or explaining things to you. I will simply say you cannot point to any set of adopted Republican policies (as opposed to talking points) in the last 30 years that were fiscally conservative.
    It does not surprise me that independent voters haven’t figured this out, as they tend not to be engaged. The dominant media narative does not support reality here either. But there is no excuse for you to be making this error. It is simply sloppy and ignorant.


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