FiveThirtyEight had a fascinating look at the Bernie vs. Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination. The analysis finds that Bernie Sanders has found his strongest support not from self identified Democrats, but among Independents.
Sanders, the spunky Independent Senator from Vermont who styles himself a Democratic Socialist, is actually winning so called Independent voters. You know, the supposed non-partisan voters tired, of well, partisanship.
But it’s not just the Left’s progressive hero that has attracted Independents. In the GOP primary, Donald Trump captured the Independent vote in all but two states where the primary was open or semi-open. Trump actually won New Hampshire and South Carolina because he carried the Independent vote by double-digits. Sanders won it by an astounding 48 percent in New Hampshire.
Amateur political analysts and the drive by media take great pride in needling both major parties by pointing out Independents are by far the largest voting bloc in the country. In January, Gallup found 42 percent of Americans identified as Independents and Pew was not far behind in its findings (39 percent). If only the parties would find common ground these voters would be more willing to engage in politics. Except, in reality, we already know one key fact about Independent voters. They are as ideological and partisan as their fellow partisans.
The 2012 American National Elections Study, an ongoing effort by Stanford University and the University of Michigan that measures the attitudes of the American voter across elections, found that self-identified independent voters who “leaned” toward the Democrats gave Barack Obama 87 percent of their vote. Republican-leaning independents gave Romney an 87 percent share. Even though these voters self-identified as Independent or registered without party affiliation, they voted like loyal partisans.
It’s historically been a given that fewer Americans identify as Republicans than Democrats. But starting in 2007 and into the middle of 2009 fewer Americans than ever identified as Republican. Coinciding with this was the growth of the Independent vote.
In 2010 we saw Republicans win a whopping 56 percent of Independents in Congressional elections. Yet, in 2012 Romney won 54 percent of Independents and a majority in many swing states yet still lost. How can this be if Independents are the crucial, centrist vote that puts candidates over the top?
The answer is they often are more ideological than their partisan peers. Initially, it was only Republicans losing voters to Independent status (though they still voters Republican) but now Democrats are shedding voters as well. It’s not that Independents view both parties as too extreme. Rather, they view their preferred party as too mushy or weak on key issues.
The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy finds this to be the case. They used data from the Cooperative Congressional Elections Study, which surveyed 55,400 voters. Looking at opinions on key issues and voting patterns, the study found Independents were as partisan as their affiliated peers. Additionally, on ideological issues they often further to the left or right than their peers.
This explains why more centrist candidates this cycle like Lincoln Chaffee on the left and Jeb Bush and John Kasich on the right have failed to catch fire with Independents. They were far to mushy on key issues. Instead, it is the populist, anti-immigration message of the Donald and the fiery anti-trade and politics as usual of Sanders.
In states with closed primaries Donald Trump has a decidedly mixed record. Only after Wisconsin did he actually start capturing a majority of Republicans. He did this only after the field was whittled down to 3. In the Democratic contest Sanders has only won self identifying Democrats in 2 states (New Hampshire and Vermont). Clinton has only won Independents in 3 states (all deeply Southern states).
It is ironic that died in the wool conservative Republicans are trying to pass a rule through the RNC to close their primaries to unaffiliated voters. The argument being it would prevent Independents from interfering in the party faithful choosing their nominee and preventing a moderate like Trump from becoming the nominee. Trump may be moderate on some issues but on others like trade, immigration and entitlements he is about as conservative as they come.
On the opposite side of the spectrum many Democratic leaning Independents backing Sanders are fighting against their party’s rigging of the process through Super-delegates. Funny it took these voters this long to revolt against a practice that made their votes less relevant.
In a country as political and ideologically diverse as ours the greatest irony may be that as both parties elites try to maintain their power through closed primaries or Super-delegates they are only sowing the seeds of their destruction. As the ranks of Independents grow (left and right) they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in their parties.
Candidates will take notice and cater more and more to them and not the party faithful. Independent turnout will actually matter more but due to voter targeting it is the kind of Independents that turn out who will matter. In 2014, more Independents voted Democratic than 2010 but they made up a smaller share of the electorate than in 2010. Republicans made up a larger share of the vote erasing some of their losses among Independents relative to 2010.
From true moderates and centrists perspectives (about 5 to 10 percent of all Independents) politics will hedge even more to the extreme and compromise will be even less of an acceptable word. They will lose out in the process and truly have to choose between the less of two evils. Or not vote at all!