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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira Slays Myth of Independent Voters as Pivotal Force

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira has a blistering critique of Linda Killian’s book, “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,” at The New Republic. Teixeira takes on the cherished myth that refuses to die, “…that independents are all swing voters ready to move right or left politically–or in Killian’s feverish imagination, toward some inchoate centrist formation of the No Labels variety.”

…This premise is based on the greatest myth in American politics: that independents are actually independent. They are not. As numerous studies have shown, the overwhelming majority of Americans who say there are “independent” lean toward one party or the other. Call them IINOs, or Independents In Name Only. IINOs who say they lean toward the Republicans think and vote just like regular Republicans. IINOs who say they lean toward the Democrats think and vote just like regular Democrats.

Unlike the proponents of the Independent voters as pivotal force myth, Teixeira has the numbers to back up his assertions:

…In 2008, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Study (NES), 90 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for Obama, actually a higher level of support than among weak Democratic partisans (those who said they were “not very strong” Democrats), 84 percent of whom voted for Obama. Among Republican-leaning independents, a still-high 78 percent voted for McCain, compared to 88 percent support among weak Republican identifiers.
Evidently, these two groups are quite different animals. On the one hand, we have a group of “independents” who voted 90 percent for Barack Obama. Moreover, as Alan Abramowitz and others have shown, the policy views of Democratic-leaning independents look just like the policy views of Democratic identifiers. On the other, we have a group of “independents” who voted 78 percent for John McCain and have policy views that look just like Republican identifiers. Clearly it does tremendous violence to the data to lump these two disparate groups together and give them a label–“independents”–that implies they do not have partisan inclinations.

Teixeira acknowledges that there is a comparatively small demographic of “so-called pure independents” who “split their vote much more evenly between the parties…In 2008, according to the NES, they were just 7 percent of all voters and only 20 percent of nominally independent voters.”
Taking this more sober view of Independents is a prerequisite for formulating a useful strategy, as Teixeira explains:

Clearly, from the standpoint of a political campaign, it makes no sense to treat all independents as an undifferentiated mass of swing voters who are located in the center of the political spectrum. The Obama campaign, for example, should have different strategies for appealing to Democratic-leaning independents (24 percent of their 2008 support), pure independents (6 percent of 2008 support) and Republican-leaning independents (4 percent of 2008 support), since each of these groups looks, thinks and acts differently from the others. To do otherwise would be political malpractice.

Thus, Teixeira adds, “…Killian’s book cannot be taken seriously as analysis, whatever its pretensions. It adds nothing of value to our understanding of independents in general and of swing voters in particular.” For that, Teixeira recommends William G. Mayer’s anthology, “The Swing Voter in American Politics.”
No doubt the Independent voter zombie will rise again to annoy serious political scientists. But no politician who wants to win should pay it much attention. As Teixeira advises “Do not cower behind chimerical third-party movements that aspire to lead an army that does not exist.”

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