The myth of the “independent” voter

A new poll finds that just 5 percent of voters are truly “independent” – ideologically centrist and unaffiliated with either political party.

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Public polling over the past year has suggested that politically “independent” voters are on the rise.

In January, Gallup announced that those who identify themselves as “Independent” now make up a full 42 percent of the voting electorate. In March, Pew showed that Millennials increasingly see themselves as independent from a political party. These results suggest that political campaigns have a bigger slice of the electoral pie to woo than ever before.

The data, however, say otherwise.

Not all Independents are moderate, and not all moderates are Independent. In fact, the two groups barely overlap.
Our latest polling for Republic 3.0 (a nationwide survey of 1,000 likely voters, conducted Sept. 30 – Oct. 2) shows us that the term “Independent” is fairly meaningless when it comes to thinking about key voters. In the news media, the terms “Independent” and “moderate” are often used interchangeably to mean those voters who fall in between Democrats and Republicans in their political beliefs.

However, if you ask voters about their party affiliation – Democrat, Republican, or Independent – as well as their political ideology – liberal, moderate, or conservative – it becomes clear that not all Independents are moderates and not all moderates are Independent. Instead, voters call themselves “Independent” as a way to describe a wide variety of political positions.

In fact, we found that the share of voters who consider themselves both “Independent” and ideologically “moderate” make up just 5 percent of the overall electorate! Here’s how we arrived at this conclusion:

The party affiliation results in our national poll are fairly consistent with results from a recent Pew survey and other public polls. We found that 26 percent of voters identified themselves as Republican, 36 percent as Democrat, and 36 percent as Independent.

If we eliminate the voters who say they are Independent but lean towards one party, what’s left are just 20 percent of voters who say they do not lean in one direction or another. A third (33%) of voters either identify with the Republican Party or lean in that direction, and 45 percent identify or lean towards the Democratic party.

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partyideologyFrom an ideological standpoint, 29 percent of voters consider themselves to be “liberal,” 24 percent “conservative,” and 47 percent “moderate.” But to get a better understanding of voters’ ideologies, we also asked how they see themselves in comparison to their elected officials.

About half (51 percent) of voters rate Congressional Democrats as more liberal than they are, while about half (53 percent) rate Republicans as more conservative than they are. The overlap – those who see Democrats as more liberal and Republicans as more conservative – i.e., those who make up the actual middle – make up just 20 percent of likely voters. Another 20 percent of voters place themselves in line with one of the parties, while 43 percent consider themselves more liberal or more conservative than they view the Congressional parties.

 

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As we see above, 20 percent of voters in our poll self-identify as “Independent” and do not acknowledge that they lean towards either party, and the same percentage (again, 20 percent) of voters fall in the ideological center – that is, they see themselves as more liberal than Republicans and more conservative than Democrats. If these two groups – true Independents and true moderates – consisted of the same voters, then the term “Independent” would indeed be a useful identifier, and campaigns would have a somewhat healthy number of voters to pursue.

Unfortunately, these two groups are far from overlapping.

As the chart below shows, 15 percent of voters who call themselves Independent actually place themselves ideologically in line with one of the parties in Congress (“Democrats with a Home” and “Republicans with a Home”); these voters seem simply to be uncomfortable labeling themselves as a member of a particular party, or prefer to think of themselves as Independent even if the label is not accurate.

The largest group (37 percent) of those using the Independent label actually consists of voters who place themselves on the edges of the political spectrum: strong liberals and conservatives who think Democrats and Republicans are in fact too moderate. These voters use the term “Independent” to mean they fall outside of party lines, but not to mean they fall between the two parties ideologically.

In fact, among the voters who identify themselves as “Independent” in our poll, only a quarter – just 5 percent of the overall electorate – fall into the standard, 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.

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If we wanted to be more generous about the percentage of voters who make up the middle-of-the-road group, we could add in those voters who call themselves “Independent,” but are either confused in their ideology or believe they identify with both parties. Including these “confused” and “bi-political” voters would bring the persuadable portion of the overall electorate up from 5 percent to 10 percent. Either way, any suggestion that the political middle is on the upswing because more voters identify as Independent is tragically misplaced.

If we want to have a real understanding of what is happening in the electorate we need to move away from the twin myths that: (1) the number of Independent voters is increasing; and (2) “Independent” and “moderate” are interchangeable terms.

Yes, the number of people who are not registering as a member of a party is increasing, but that does not mean the number of truly independent voters is on the rise. Furthermore we need to stop focusing on Independents as the end-all-be-all of electoral success and start looking at the truly moderate voters – including those who identify with a political party – because that is where elections are actually won or lost.

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

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