Independent Voters don't decide elections


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I was struck by an article posted on the Huffington Post a while back bemoaning President Obama's weakness as a negotiator.

By no means was this article unique in its tone. In fact, it is really just one of many in a long line of articles, posts, and commentaries impugning Obama's apparent failure to serve as a standard bearer for this or that thing that the author considers some grand monolithic Democratic or liberal cause.

Lack of originality aside, the title of the article — "Let These 'Independents' Re-elect Obama, I Think I Will Sit This One Out" — got me thinking.

I feel you, but the president will probably have the last laugh in all of this. The president's flexibility might not play well with his base, but it plays well with independents. And seeing as independents decide elections, the president will be just fine even if his base is a bit disaffected.

Then I paused for a second, and I thought back to some rather interesting bits of research and history that call into question two important aspects of the common wisdom concerning independents and electoral politics.

These aspects being, the "fact" that independents represent a large percentage of people who vote in presidential elections and the "fact" that independents ultimately decide elections.

This in mind, I decided to go back and take a look at some research and electoral history in hopes of shedding some light on whether or not winning the hearts and minds of independents is worth alienating one's political base.

Once every five years or so, Pew goes out and constructs a "Political Typology"report, which categorizes and defines different voting blocs in the United States. The most recent was done in 2011.

When all was said and done, Pew found that 25 percent of those surveyed fell into two voting blocs that could be considered core Republican voters. It also found that 40 percent fell into one of three core Democratic voting blocs and that the remaining 35 percent fell into one of three groups that were considered "Mostly Independent."

The last bit is where things become interesting.

Even though Pew categorized 35 percent of people as being "Mostly Independent," a firm majority of those people expressed strong party preferences. In fact, 16.5 percent of "Mostly Independent" people expressed a strong preference for the Republican Party, 9.6 percent expressed a strong preference for Democrats, and only 8.9 percent expressed no party preference.

In effect, what Pew found was that only 8.9 percent of independent voters are truly independent.

At this point, some might contend that it is unfair to lump "lean-party" voters together with people who fully identify with a party.

To address this, I point to data collected by the American National Election Study after the 2008 elections.

In 2008, 40 percent of eligible voters identified as independents. Of that 40 percent, 33 percent actually voted. Furthermore, 26 percent of that 33 percent identified as being a lean-party voter. Of that 26 percent that identified as having a party preference, a full 87 percent voted for the candidate associated with their preferred party.

In short, most independents are effectively closet partisans who vote very much like their openly partisan counterparts, and truly independent voters represent a very small segment of the voting population.

This brings me to whether independents decide elections.

Common wisdom says that a candidate cannot win general-election contests without winning independent voters. However, this has proven to be far from a historical fact. Interestingly enough, you do not even need to go that far back in time to see that the common wisdom does not even come close on this one.

Actually it's not unusual for the winners of close elections (elections decided by 5 percent points or fewer) to lose the independent vote, it is downright common. In the past three "close elections," the winner of that election lost among independent voters.

True independents make up a very small segment of the voting population, they tend to turn out in low numbers, and rarely do they favor one side over the other to a great enough degree to overcome a well-mobilized base. This is not to say that independents cannot decide an election, but it is to say that the odds of them doing so are slim.

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