Moderate Independents: The voters who matter most

Though they make up just 5 percent of the electorate, these highly-educated, white male voters - many of whom live in the South and Midwest - still have the power to swing elections.

Image credit: Getty

Throughout the election season, many pundits and campaigns have focused on “independent voters” and their importance.

Unfortunately, much of this conversation is misdirected. Too often, pundits who talk about “independents” are not talking about the right people. And even worse, the billions of campaign dollars being spent to sway “independent voters” are missing their targets while true independents are ignored.

In an earlier piece, we disproved two myths about the Independent voter: (1) we showed that while the number of registered independents might be increasing, the number of true political independents is not; and (2) “Independent” is not the same as “moderate.”

Among the voters who identified themselves as “Independent” in our nationwide poll of 1,000 likely voters earlier this month, only a quarter – just 5 percent of the overall electorate – fall into the commonly-used definition of an “Independent”: voters who do not identify with a party and at the same time place themselves ideologically between Democrats and Republicans.

These “Moderate Independents” have their own specific viewpoints, particular demographic traits, and, in one of the biggest takeaways from this research, aren’t the “Independent Voters” campaigns and the media regularly target and discuss.

Who are Moderate Independents?

Most people who label themselves “Independents” either see themselves ideologically in line with one of the parties in Congress but prefer to think of themselves as Independent, or they use the Independent label but consider themselves to be more liberal or more conservative than the two parties. In contrast, Moderate Independents don’t align themselves with either party and, unlike “extremist Independents,” are centrist in their viewpoints.

Among these Moderate Independents, we found that over half (57%) are white and male. In fact, the white male share among Moderate Independents is higher than among all Independents (42%) and all likely voters (38%). Even the group of voters usually thought to consist mostly of white men – Conservative Republicans – has a slightly lower actual share of white men (54%).

Moderate Independents are highly educated, with 71 percent having at least a college degree (compared to 56 percent of all self-identified Independents). But even though the Northeast is where we tend to find some of the highest percentages of white, educated voters, these voters are more likely to live in the South or the Midwest.

In addition, while we tend to see slightly more young voters classifying themselves as Independent, Moderate Independents are much more likely to be middle-aged (ages 45-64), but they are less likely to have children at home.

Who are Moderate Independents?

 All votersIndependentsModerate Independents
White men38%42%57%
College or Post Grad Degree56%56%71%
Children at home32%34%21%
Under 4546%49%37%
Men under 4511%15%19%
Women under 4535%34%18%
Age 45-6438%42%49%
Men 45-6424%26%38%
Women 45-6414%16%12%

White, male, highly educated, middle-aged and living in the South or the Midwest: It’s not exactly the picture most in the media (or on political campaigns) tend to paint when it comes to Independents, but it is time to not just rethink how we use the term Independent, but also who is making up this group of Moderate Independents.

Are millennials the new crop of independents?

The Pew Research Center made headlines in March by reporting that an increasing number of millennials identify as Independent as part of a general detachment from organized politics and religion, as well as distrust of people and authority figures. To this point, they show that a full 50 percent of millennials (age 18-34) now describe themselves as political independents, in contrast to just 30 percent to 40 percent among the other generations.

In actuality, among millennials who call themselves Independent, 31 percent place themselves ideologically in line with or to the left of Democrats, 16 percent in line with or to the right of Republicans, and just 15 percent place themselves between the two parties.   This 15 percent is in fact much lower than we see among all Independents – 24 percent of whom fall ideologically between the two parties.

Millennials may be eschewing party classification, but in our recent poll, they compose just 20 percent of Moderate Independents, despite the fact that these young voters make up 31 percent of the overall electorate.

Moderate Independents by generational share

 All votersIndependentsModerate Independents
Millennials (Generation Y)31%33%20%
Generation X21%22%19%
Baby Boomers42%42%59%

So where do the Moderate Independents come from, if not the millennials? Surprisingly, we find that the Baby Boomers (respondents who are between 50 and 69) comprise the majority of Moderate Independents (59%), although they constitute less than half (42%) of all likely voters. Even though Boomers are not a disproportionately high percentage of those who call themselves Independent (42%), they do indeed make up a significant majority of Moderate Independents.

Millennials may talk a big game when it comes to political detachment, but it is in fact their parents who are the true Moderate Independents.

What do Moderate Independents think of partisans?

Given the definition of an Independent – and their explicit decision not to identify with a party – it’s hardly surprisingly that Moderate Independents disagree with the approach of all Washington partisans (the President, Congressional Democrats, and Congressional Republicans) a majority of the time.

Nonetheless, they do have a slight Democratic lean: Moderate Independents agree with President Obama’s approach 36 percent of the time, while they agree with Congressional Democrats 29 percent of the time and Congressional Republicans 25 percent of the time. These numbers are not exactly a rousing endorsement for anyone in Washington, however.

Moderate Independents also see Congressional Democrats as far more liberal and Congressional Republicans as far more conservative than their partisan and ideological counterparts do. Moderate Independents rate the “liberalness” of Democrats as more extreme than even Republicans and Conservatives do, and in judging the “conservativeness” of Republicans, their ratings are beyond those of Democrats and Liberals. It’s only the most Conservative Republicans and most Liberal Democrats who rate the other side of the spectrum to be more extreme in their views.

Moderate Independents are not the dissociated, uneducated, uninformed voters that they are painted to be. Rather, they are among the most educated voters, but they simply do not relate to what they view as ideologically extreme political parties.

Although Moderate Independents still make up a relative small share of the electorate – 5 percent – the most hotly-contested races in the country have been won or lost for less.

While larger demographic groups have captured the current attention of pundits and pollsters, it might be time to take a second look at who the nation’s real swing voters really are.

Stefan Hankin is President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C. Follow: @LPStrategies