The Ideology of Independents: More Ideological Than Partisans

isFiveThirtyEight 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!





This Election Arizona and Georgia Will Stay Red

isA series of new polls have Democrats optimistic in Georgia and Arizona.  In Arizona, a new PPP (D) survey finds Trump with a narrow 45-41 lead over Trump.  In Georgia, two local polls have Trump ahead by only 3 and 4 points.

At first glance this might indicate that what Republicans initially worried about, Trump’s weakness among minorities and suburban women, is being proven true.  If Trump can barely carry these reliably red but demographically changing states how can he hope to win blue battleground states?

Except, these polls indicate exactly nothing.  That’s right.  Nothing.  Firstly, Trump has a lead in both states.  Secondly, 40 to 45 percent has historically been the floor of recent statewide Democratic candidates in Georgia and Arizona.  Keep in mind Democrats have been hot on flipping Georgia since 2008 and Democrats have been salivating over Arizona since 2012.

Just look at the recent performances of statewide Democrats in Arizona and Georgia since 2008.  The Democratic candidate for Governor in Arizona hit 42 percent.  In 2012 Obama garnered 44 percent and their Senate candidate 46 percent.  In 2014, Democrats hit 41 percent for Governor.  In Georgia a similar pattern has followed.  Democrats hit 42 percent for Governor in 2010, Obama hit 45 percent in 12 and their highly touted recruits for Senate and Governor in ’14 hit 44 and 45 percent.

It’s also important to keep in mind that polling in both states is notoriously difficult for the simple reason both states are demographically diverse.  Polls out of Arizona in 2014 had the GOP and Democratic candidate for Governor tied until a month before the election.  In Georgia, polling struggled even more.  Though Republicans won all statewide races by at least 8 points, polling had Democrats ahead in both the Senate and gubernatorial contest.

Issues over the individual polls and their sample populations aside (they were bad), these recent polls do not indicate Trump is in trouble in either state.  It would be nice to be ahead by a little more in both states in early polls but Trump never was going to run away with either state.  Georgia has a large black, Democratic base and Arizona a large, Hispanic base.

Democrats anticipate Trump turning out Hispanics in massive numbers in Arizona and blacks to come out in force for Clinton.  They cite statistics showing Hispanic turnout has lagged in Arizona (it has) and black turnout is only getting bigger in Georgia (it is).  But, what they forget is that for every Hispanic or black voter that turns out it is countered by a new white voter.

Both states are heavily defined by their racial voting patterns.  In 2014, exit polls showed whites went heavily (74 percent) for Republican candidates in Georgia.  Not even 90 percent and above support among blacks could make up for the massive deficit Democrats suffered from among rural and suburban whites.  Until this is turned around Democrats cannot hope to win the state.  In Arizona, exit polling was not available but precinct and county level data indicates Hispanic turnout was above 2010, below 2012, and heavily Democratic.  But, this was outweighed by GOP strength in Maricopa County.

There is little evidence Trump’s candidacy will break these patterns.  He is not a perfect fit for the modern GOP coalition in Georgia (where he seems in greatest danger) of evangelicals, suburban and rural whites.  Hispanic turnout could threaten him in Arizona.  But this assumes voters in both states find Clinton palatable.  The best assumption is probably not.

The theory that voters will back the son, daughter, aunt (or in Clinton’s case, wife) has already been tested in Georgia.  Jason Carter ran for Governor and Michelle Nunn ran for Senate.  Jimmy Carter was a former Governor of the state and Sam Nunn was an influential US Senator who hailed from down south.  Both Carter and Nunn tanked in the rural areas their family once dominated.  Good luck changing that Clinton.

Clinton is an especially bad fit for Georgia.  She’s toxic to white men and her run to the left has robbed her of appeal in the Georgian suburbs.  In Arizona, her embrace of amnesty might work well with Hispanics, but again, it makes her ability to reach white suburbs almost impossible.

So, take a chill pill.  Democrats might be able to flip one or both states in the future but they need at least another four years of demographic changes, a better candidate and an especially flawed GOP nominee to make it happen.  Trump is many things but he is not as damaged or toxic as Democrats assume in either state.  They will find that out this November.


Trump Has Yet To Impact Down-Ballot Contests and May Not Regardless

donald-trumpUnderstandably, if you are a Republican concerned about the impact of Trump on your Congressional majorities your worries are valid.  But, to date, there are few if any polls that indicate Trump is a drag on down-ballot Republicans.

Let’s take a look at polling in some of the most competitive Senate races in the country.  In Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson started out his race as an underdog and that has not changed.  Neither has the polling.  In January Marquette University had Feingold up by double-digits.  Their last poll, taken in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary, had Johnson within 4 points.

But one case is an isolated incident, right?  Well, let’s also look at New Hampshire.  At the start of the year, Kelly Ayotte had a lead from anywhere from 1 to 10 points.  Since the New Year, Ayotte has led in the polls from anywhere between 1 and 7 points.

Wisconsin and New Hampshire are fairly white states and since Trump’s appeal is particularly strong among white voters that must be a factor.  Not so much.  In North Carolina’s Senate race, Richard Burr’s average lead is largely unchanged from the start of the year (outlier polls included or not).

Since the 2004 election it has largely been assumed by many pollsters and analysts that as the Presidential race goes so go many down-ballot contests.  The links between partisanship and voting are clear as is the significant drop-off in split-ticket voting.

This assumption has always suffered from one flaw though, it is based on self reported voting habits of voters.  We all know how accurate self-reported voting habits can be.  In 2013 the Census Bureau reported that more blacks self-reported voted than whites as a percentage of their respective shares of the US population.  Um, except that this would mean that more blacks would have had to vote than there were registered black voters in 2012.

Already, we have seen just how weak the connection is between voting at the top of the ticket and the bottom.  In a previous column, I noted how outsider candidates have been unable to harness the power of Trump voters to their benefit.  Well, that certainly has not changed and it could indicate for the first time that voters are not letting partisanship be the end all to guide their actions.

One recent race in particular stands out to show this phenomenon in detail.  The 9th CD GOP Primary pitted longtime Congressman Bill Shuster against arch conservative Art Halvorson.  You would think if ideology or outsider status was guiding voter habits Trump’s wins would coincide somewhat with Halvorson’s.  None of that happened.

Instead, 5 of the 10 counties Shuster won gave Trump some of his biggest margins in the state.  These counties-Huntington, Somerset, Washington, Fayette and Greene- are downscale white and Trump country.  By contrast, the counties Halvorson won-Franklin, Fulton, Indiana, Blair and Bedford- are more upscale and would appear more likely to go with an establishment figure like Shuster.  Well, no.

This kind of election frustrates the pundits and analysts because it makes current election models appear less accurate and less likely to be correct.  For so long the correlation between top of the ticket results and down-ballot races has been clear.

Recently, there have been many election outliers to top of the ticket races swinging down-ballot contests.  The 2012 election was notable because it had several.  In Montana, a state Romney carried by 14 percent, Bill Tester won reelection by 4 percent.  In North Dakota, a state Romney carried by 20 percent, Heidi Heitkamp won by 1 percent.  West Virginia was even more notable because Obama did not win a single county in the state and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin won by 24 percent.  Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri won by 15 percent in a state Romney won by double-digits.  Republican Dean Heller won a squeaker in Nevada while Obama was winning the state by 6 percent.

These results were largely ignored because they contradicted the connection between top of the ticket decisions deciding all.  After GOP wins in 2014 in mostly red states (minus Iowa and Colorado), it was assumed these 2012 results were largely outliers.

Except they seemed to be more prophetic than not.  In three of the Romney states Democratic Senate candidates ran in they disavowed their party’s President and ran on bipartisan credentials.  They ran on the interests of their states and never directly tied themselves to ideology, unlike many of their now former Democratic colleagues defeated last cycle.

In these results we can see perhaps the precursor to 2016.  This election has opened up the deep class, ideological and racial divides in BOTH parties.  How else can one explain the rise of a socialistic Senator from Vermont challenging the Clinton Machine and the Speaker of the House on national TV saying he is “not there yet” in endorsing his party’s nominee for President?

Ironically, as more and more Americans believe the system has become too ideological and partisan we are seeing parts of both parties coalitions splitting from the ranks and partisanship finally not being the end all-be all.  The free-market, pro-reform, pro-business wing of the party is running away from Trump.  Constitutional conservatives are doing the same.  Meanwhile, the blue-collar wing of the party is embracing Trump as their hero (never-mind he has never been poor).

Likewise, on the Democratic side the young, up and coming wing of the party composed of college educated Millennials and upscale, white suburbanites, is divorcing itself from a party they view as too moderate and business friendly.

Add it all up and the assumption that Trump equals a death knell for down-ticket Republicans is patently absurd.  American politics has entered uncharted territory and nobody knows what will happen.  For the first time in a generation, not seen since Watergate, both parties political establishments are losing control and watching their carefully crafted coalitions splinter and fracture.  Either Trump and Clinton will win and the top of the ticket results may influence some down-ballot races but the results cannot change the fact both parties are struggling to adapt to the demands of a 21st century electorate hungry for change.