Gallup recently recorded a a large number of voters identify as Independents politically. More specifically, according to their January 5-8th survey a whopping 45% identified as Independents while only 24% identified as Republicans and 29% as Democrats. Only in October of 2013 did more voters identify as Independent, 47% to be exact. In 2013 a record average of 42% of voters surveyed identified as Independents. Unsurprisingly, these findings have repercussions for both political parties but it has also led to analysis that America is becoming less loyal to party despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence to the contrary that Americans are becoming less loyal to party is legion. Exit polls, the political gridlock in Congress, fewer Independents identifying as such in exit polls compared to self-identification surveys and the consistent voting habits of racial groups all show that Americans remain extremely loyal to party in all but name. Consider the examples below.
Exit polls: Despite the swing nature of Independents their voting patterns in the last four elections show the underlying trends in Independents voting patterns have remained the same. Independents backed Democrats 57%-39% in 2006 and Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats 53%-46% in 2008. Yet in 2010 they supported Republicans 56%-39% and Mitt Romney 50%-45% in 2012. Yet when one digs deeper into an Independents ideology one finds they are not so Independent. In The Myth of the Independent Voter, Bruce Keith puts forward the theory that Independent voter growth is a myth, rather it can be attributed to several factors but all Independents fall somewhere along a 7 point spectrum (Strong Republican, Weak Republican, Independent Republican, Pure Independent and vice-versa). In the study Keith found few voters identify as Pure Independents in both ideology and voting habits. Leaving this analysis alone for moment recent exit polls bear this out. In both 2010 and 2012 whites were most likely to identify as Independents and they predominately backed Congressional Republicans in 2010 (62%) and 2012 (59%). Also unsurprisingly, when one digs through the cross tabs whites were most likely to identify as conservative and they voted almost lockstep Republican (despite identifying as Independent). Independent Hispanics and Blacks also predominately backed Democrats in both election cycles as well as 06 and 08 while white Independents still backed Republicans. In short, the largest blocs of Independent voters have not acted so Independent.
Political Gridlock: One would assume if Independents are craving independence from politicians and they are the largest voting bloc in the country they would act to elect like-minded individuals. Not so much. Consider these three examples. In 2010 Independent voters in Massachusetts (who form a majority of registered voters) helped to elect moderate Scott Brown (R) to the Senate. A mere two years later however these same voters elected a progressive, no compromise, firebrand to the Senate in Elizabeth Warren (D). In 2010 in both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania a strong majority of Independent voters supported Republican firebrands Pat Toomey (PA) and Ron Johnson (WI) to the US Senate (they have since positioned themselves as moderates for 2016). This same pattern can be identified at the Congressional and state level as well. Massachusetts with its massive number of Independent voters has a federal delegation of 10 Democratic Congressmen/women and 2 Democratic Senators. It’s state delegation has over 150 Democrats and slightly over 20 Republicans. All statewide offices are controlled by Democrats. Keeping with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania both had all statewide offices controlled by the GOP (until 2013) and both legislatures are solidly in GOP control. Neighboring Minnesota (to Wisconsin) has the exact opposite partisan control compared to its neighbor. Now, many critics of this analysis and prior analyses point out that there are mitigating factors; redistricting, partisan consolidation of power, the power of money in politics, etc. However, even that can only go so far if a majority of near majority of voters wanted truly Independent voices in elected office. Obviously they do not despite their identification.
Independent Turnout: Gallup has been polling Independent identification trends for well over two decades and something consistent has come out of their surveys and exit polls. Fewer voters who identify as Independent show up to vote compared to self-identification surveys. Consider that in 2006 Gallup recorded 35% of voters identified as Independent yet only 26% identified as Independent in exit polls. In 08, 36% identified as Independents to Gallup while only 29% showed up at the ballot box. Both 2010 (38% according to Gallup) and 2012 (40%) continued this trend with 29% voting as Independent in 2010 and 2012. It is not a stretch to extrapolate from this data that as elections near some Independents return to their partisan roots and identify as partisan after they vote. It is also easy to state that many Pure Independents stay home as ideologically driven candidates come out of party primaries and state conventions.
Racial Voting Patterns: Since the 60’s racial voting patterns have held remarkably steady. Hispanics and African-Americans have voted Democratic at increasing rates while whites have, short of intermittent cycles, increasingly backed Republicans. Since the new Millennium this cycle has only accelerated. Indeed, this racial cleavage can be found in smaller cleavages of rural vs. suburb vs. urban, ideology, etc. Asians until 1996 were Republican leaning but have since become as Democratic as Hispanics. Short of 2004 and GW Bush’s 44% showing among Hispanics and 10% among African-Americans minorities have increasingly become Democratic. This as a record number of Hispanics identify as Independent yet they do not vote in such a way nor after the initial response does their registered status match their response. In 2012 some estimates state Obama won over 70% of the national Hispanic vote. Meanwhile, of the Independent voting groups that consistently back Republicans at all levels they were all white, (white, married women, white married men, white youth, white Independents). In other words, despite increasing Independent identification racial voting patterns continue to become increasingly one-sided.
There are other factors that could be chosen than those above. Rural vs, urban, conservative vs. liberal, education level, upper income vs lower-income etc. all point to the fact that the primary reason more and more voters are choosing to identify as Independent is merely because they have lost faith in America’s governmental institutions. Certainly, Democrats and Republicans will have to adapt to the new political environment. While most Independents may not be true Independents they may be more open to a new kind of Democrat or Republican at the Presidential level. For Republicans this may be their godsend allowing a new Reagan to enter into the fold and remake the electoral map (much as Clinton did for Dems in 92 and 96).
However, to simply see the increase in Independent identification as a loss of power for both political parties would be incredibly simplistic. Rather, both the GOP and Democrats have been losing power over their voters and members for decades. Voters have contributed to this by electing firebrands and firing moderates in wave elections and members have contributed to this by flexing their independence from the national, state and Congressional levels of their political party.
The growing numbers of Independents could usher in a new era of American politics. But, I stress could. Rather, it seems voters are doing it to to communicate their dissatisfaction and frustration with the status quo. In the short-term it seems likely we will see dramatic shifts in turnout as many partisan “leaning” and “Pure” Independents do not show up at the ballot box. Long term, well, I will not deign to prognosticate that far out.