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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are Independents Overrated?

Alan I. Abramowitz’s “The Myth of the Independent Voter Revisited” in Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball makes a strong case for minimizing the importance of Independents in formulating electoral strategy.

Independents are hot. If you’ve been reading the opinion columns in the newspaper or watching the talking heads on television, you probably know that political independents are the largest and fastest growing segment of the American electorate. You also know that independents don’t care about party labels, vote for the person instead of the party, and hew toward the center rather than the poles of the ideological spectrum. And you know that appealing to this growing bloc of independent voters is the major goal of modern political campaigns.
Unfortunately, almost everything that you’ve read or heard about independent voters recently is wrong.

The reason, Abramowitz says:

True independents actually make up a small segment of the American public and an even smaller segment of the electorate; the large majority of those who call themselves independents actually have a party preference…

Abramowitz cites the evidence from the 2008 American National Election Study, and pinpoints the reason for the mistaken belief in the power of Independents as an electoral demographic :

…The 2008 NES appears to show that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. About 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as independents, which was considerably more than the 34 percent who identified with the Democratic Party or the 26 percent who identified with the Republican Party. However, when these independent identifiers were asked a follow-up question, nearly three-fourths of them indicated that they usually felt closer to one of the two major parties. Only 11 percent of the respondents were “pure independents” with no party preference. And because these pure independents turned out at a much lower rate than either regular or independent partisans, that number shrank down to 7 percent among those who actually voted.

The study showed that party preferences of many self-described Independents was strongly reflected in their votes, and “these independent partisans think and act almost exactly like regular partisans”:

Not only did the large majority of independent identifiers readily acknowledge having a party preference, but the evidence…shows that independent partisans behaved almost identically to regular partisans when it came to choosing candidates for President, House of Representatives, and Senate: independent Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates and independent Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.

And the pattern holds for opinions on issues — particularly on health care:

Independent Democrats were generally quite liberal while independent Republicans were generally quite conservative. For example, 76 percent of independent Democrats supported a government-sponsored universal health insurance plan as did 74 percent of regular Democrats. On the other hand, 60 percent of independent Republicans opposed such a plan as did 70 percent of regular Republicans.

And interestingly,

On social issues, independent Democrats were sometimes even more liberal than regular Democrat. For example, 59 percent of independent Democrats supported same-sex marriage compared with 48 percent of regular Democrats, and 63 percent of independent Democrats took the most pro-choice position on the issue of abortion compared with 53 percent of regular Democrats.

The pattern persists for presidential approval polls, notes Abramowitz, who concludes:

…It therefore makes no sense to view independents as a homogenous bloc of floating voters. Independents are sharply divided along party lines just like the rest of the American electorate….The major goal of modern political campaigns is not appealing to a mythical bloc of independent voters, but unifying and mobilizing partisans.

Abramowitz presents a couple of tables that lay out the data nicely, with categories like “weak Democrats” and “pure independents.” The implications of Abramowitz’s analysis for allocating campaign resources should be considerable and his article is a keeper for those interested in electoral campaign strategy.

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