At The Cook Political Report Amy Walter puts what one hopes is the final nail in the coffin of widespread pundit references to “independent voters” as a major force in swinging elections.
It’s been one of those stubborn myths that refuses to die among political talking heads of lighter weight, particularly those favoring the ‘Dems in disarray’ meme, despite extremely convincing work by Alan Abramowitz and others. Walter covers some familiar territory, noting that “pure independents” are 10 percent tops and she adds to our understanding of what is really going on with the increase in self-described ‘independents’. Walter analyzes data from a recent paper by Kimberley Norman and Zachary Zundel for the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy which explains:
that “the majority of Independent voters have political opinions that align with one of the two major parties at least as well as party members.” In fact, they write, “independents who “leaned” toward one party or the other actually had stronger alignment than those who identified as “not very strong” in the same party. Additionally, their results were far more similar with those who identified themselves as being “strong” in their party.”
In other words, those who call themselves “independent” may actually be closer to the views of the core GOP or core Democratic policy positions than even those who identify themselves as a party member.
Using the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study as their source of public opinion, the authors of the study compared the opinions of 55,400 Americans (34 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican, 30 percent independent) with the official party positions of the Democratic and Republican party platforms of 2012. They broke the 23 policy issue questions into roughly equal buckets of economic and social issues.The further an individual deviated from the “official party” position, the higher their score. For example, a Democrat who believed that “by law, abortion should never be permitted” got a score of two. One who said that “the law should permit abortion only in case of rape or incest or when the woman’s life is in danger” got a score of one. The Democrat who believed a “woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice” was give a score of zero.
On average, those who identified as an independent who “leaned” toward one party or the other, had lower deviation scores (i.e. were more closely aligned with core positions of the party) than those who were not as strongly identified with the party.
Among Democrats, those who said they were “strong Democrats” had an average score of 7.97. Those who said they were independent with a “lean” to Democrats had an average score of 7.73. But, those who said they were “not very strong” Democrat had a higher average score of 9.46.
The Republican gap looks similar, with “strong Republican” averaging 5.95 and independent, “lean” Republican at 6.63. Meanwhile, those who identified themselves as “not very strong Republican” had an average score of 8.58.
Contrary to much pundit palaver, Walter concludes that ‘independent’ voters are not abandoning self-identifying with the two parties because they are too extreme. Rather, “many may be leaving because they see the party as getting too moderate or insufficiently aligned with its core values…These voters may be better aligned with strong partisans than they are with those who are not as committed to their party label.”
None of this is to say that the 10 percent of “pure independents” can’t swing an election if they line up with one party or the other. But they usually break roughly even, or stay at home. Chasing them is most always a fruitless endeavor.