For Obama and the Democrats to win in 2012, they will clearly need to win back the “Independent” voters who they lost in 2010. As we know, Independents broke hard for Republicans this time, after breaking hard for Democrats in two previous elections. Clearly they hold the balance of power in American politics.
Figure 1: Independent Voter Preferences, 1998-2010
So who are these Independents? What do they want? And how can the Democrats win them back?
According to Nov 4-7 Gallup Poll, 41 percent of voters now identify themselves as Independents, as compared to 26 percent who identify themselves as Republicans and 31 percent as Democrats. This 41 percent marks a high point in Gallup’s polling results for the last six years. However, since the mid-1970s, the number of self-identified “Independents” as a percent of voters has remained steadily in the 30s, occasionally flirting with the 40 percent mark.
It is obviously difficult to generalize about Independents, since it turns out they are actually quite a heterogenous group. About two-thirds lean to one party or the other, consistently voting for that party about 80 percent of the time. However, they are less partisan than strong partisans, and there are at least a few true independents in the mix: about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, according to political scientists.
WHO ARE THE INDEPENDENTS?
Pew probably has the best typology of Independents, breaking them up into five categories: “Shadow Republicans” (26 percent of Independents); “Disaffected Republicans” (16 percent); “Shadow Democrats” (21 percent); “Doubting Democrats” (20 percent); and “Disengaged” (17 percent). As the names suggest, the shadow partisans vote somewhat predictably as partisans, while the Disaffected/Doubting class are slightly less reliably partisan, and the “Disengaged”, while most likely to be “true” Independents, are also the least likely to vote – only 21 percent told Pew they were planning to vote this November.
In 2010, independents broke down as 41 percent conservative, 39 percent moderate, and 20 percent liberal, at least among those who voted. In 2008, independents were 43 percent moderate, 35 percent conservative, and 18 percent liberal, a breakdown that has been roughly consistent for the last 10 years.
Though many Independents may vote like partisans, choosing to identify as Independents rather than partisans is a conscious choice. For some, it may just be because they prefer to think of themselves as “Independent” because it sounds better. It probably also reflects a certain disenchantment with either of the two parties. Accordingly, 64 percent of Independent voters say that “both parties care more about special interests than about average Americans” and 53 percent say that “I don’t trust either party.”
Independents are also more likely than not to be conflicted between the two parties: 58 percent say that ”I agree with Republicans on some issues and Democrats on others.”
Generally, Independents (particularly “true” Independents) are more likely to be younger, more male, less well educated, less well off financially, have less political information, and be less engaged politically. In the past election, Just 31 percent of Independents said that it makes “a great deal of difference which party controls Congress” – as compared to 63 percent for Republicans and 53 percent for Democrats; accordingly, 37 percent of Independents think it makes no difference at all – as compared to only 13 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats.
Finally, it is worth noting that according to Senate exit polls, the five states with the highest percentage of Independent voters are New Hampshire (44 percent); Washington (42 percent); Colorado (39 percent); Oregon (38 percent); and Hawaii (38 percent). Note that none of these are rust belt states, where party loyalty actually seems to run deeper. Only 28 percent of Ohio voters were Independents and only 23 percent of Pennsylvania voters were Independents.
WHY DID INDEPENDENTS SHIFT TO THE REPUBLICAN COLUMN IN 2010?
There are probably four reasons why Republicans won Independents in 2010, two of which are structural, one of which is performance-based, and one of which is policy-based.
On the structural side, it is very likely the case that the Independents who turned out in 2010 were somewhat different than Independents who turned out in 2006 and 2008. First, as compared to 2008, turnout in midterms is consistently about two-thirds lower than it is in presidential elections. This means that the mid-term election electorate (including Independents) look older and whiter, and thus typically more Republican (young people, who as noted above are more likely to be Independents, just don’t vote as often.)
Moreover, since Independents in general tend to be less politically engaged, the enthusiasm gap is going to be the most pronounced among Independents. It seems highly plausible, then, that a lot of Independent-leaning Republicans sat out the 2006 and 2008 elections while a lot of Independent-leaning Democrats sat out the 2010 elections, and for similar reasons: their preferred party didn’t seem worth turning out to support.
The second structural reason is that Independents as a category have probably become a little bit more Republican because more registered Republicans have become Independents. Consider Table 1, which takes Gallup data for the last four elections. Between 2004, Republicans fell from 38 percent to 26 percent of the electorate, while Democrats dropped only slightly.
Table 1: Changing Party Identifications
What happened to that 12 percent of the electorate who had previously called themselves Republicans? There is good evidence they started calling themselves Independents, making Independents more conservative on the whole. Now, these were Republicans who obviously felt poorly enough about Republicans in 2006 and 2008 to no longer align themselves, and may have even voted Democrat (or more likely stayed home). But by 2010, they were back to voting Republican, even if they now thought of themselves as Independents.
Of course, this can’t and probably shouldn’t completely explain the shift. Part of it has to do with the economy. When unemployment is near 10 percent, the weakest partisans and the true Independents, who are the most sensitive to economic conditions in their voting (since they have no ideology to base their decisions), are going to punish the incumbent party.
Consider the following: In 2006, when asked which party can better “improve the job situation,” 43 percent of Independents picked Democrats; just 24 picked Republicans. In 2010, they picked Republicans 40-35. Similar reversals have taken place on “reducing the budget deficit” (44-18 for Democrats in 2006; 44-29 for Republicans in 2010), and “managing the federal government” (38-26 for Democrats in 2006; 42-31 for Republicans in 2010).
In short, Independent voters are performance-based, and when the party in power is not producing jobs, cutting the budget, or generally running things in a commanding way, Independent voters are quicker to turn against the party in power and assume the other party deserves a chance
And finally, on the policy: since almost half of Independents call themselves moderate, a number of them were probably uncomfortable with the liberal direction unified Democratic control was taking government. There were probably some number of genuinely moderate voters who saw Republicans as a correction to Democratic extremism, just as they had recently seen Democrats as a correction to Republican extremism. They might also want divided government.
WHAT DO INDEPENDENTS WANT?
Having noted the heterogeneity of Independents as a category, it is obviously a challenge to make generalizations about what Independents want.
First of all, their top priority, like all voters polled, is “economy and jobs.” More than half (52 percent) of Independents believe that Congress should focus on economy on jobs. Though, interestingly, both Republicans (59 percent) and Democrats (57 percent) put even slightly more emphasis on jobs.
They also want both parties to moderate and compromise. By a 63-26 margin, Independents want Democrats to move to the center, and by a 50-40 margin, they want Republicans to move to the center. By a 61-32 margin, they agree that “Governing is about compromise” more than “leadership is about taking principled stands.” That puts them a little closer to Democrats (who lean towards compromise 73-21, than Republicans, who are split 46-46 on the question.)
The bad news for Democrats is that Independents are skeptical of government. More than four-fifths (82 percent) say they trust government only sometimes or never (up from 71 percent in 2006), 57 percent agree that “the federal government controls too much of our daily lives,” and 55 percent say “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.”
However, these last two categories are not as overwhelming majorities as one might expect, given the anti-government rhetoric swirling around. And, interestingly, Independents are actually trending downward on both of these questions. In 1995, 70 percent of Independents thought that “the federal government controls too much of our daily lives.”
The good news for the Democrats is that by a 49-32 margin, Independents think that the Democratic Party: “Is more concerned with the needs of people like me.” Independents also are even more secular than Democrats, are tend to look like Democrats on the social issues (gay marriage, abortion, etc.) as well. Like Democrats, they also favor a more balanced approach to national security.
Figure 2: Issues Where Independents Look Like Democrats
Independents also look a little bit more like Democrats than Republicans on the environment (82 percent of Independents agree that “there needs to be stricter environmental laws and regulations to protect the environment” and 53 percent agree that “protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some job losses”) and immigration (61 percent say they “favor providing a way for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to gain legal citizenship.”)
Finally, by a 50-to-41 margin, Independents say they are “optimistic about the next two years with Barack Obama as president.” So they still haven’t written him off.
A CAVEAT ON “CONSERVATIVES”
Much has been made of the fact that there has been a shift towards conservatism in the electorate, and that the number of Independents identifying themselves as conservatives has ticked up a few points in the last few years. This may partially be an artifact of more Republicans moving into the Independent column, as described above. But it’s also useful to keep in mind that voters pick the conservative label for symbolic as well as substantive reasons.
According to research by Chris Ellis and James Stimson, some people genuinely know what it means to a conservative in the current political debate, and indeed express matching preferences across all issues. But these “constrained conservatives” (as Ellis and Stimson call them) account for only 26 percent of all self-identified conservatives.
More common are the “moral conservatives” (34 percent), who think of themselves as conservative in terms of their own personal values, be they social or religious. And they are indeed right leaning on social, cultural, and religious issues. But they also like government spending on a variety of programs and generally approve of government interventions in the marketplace, hardly making them true conservatives.
And still others, “conflicted conservatives” (30 percent), are not conservative at all on the issues. But they like identifying themselves as conservatives. To them, it somehow sounds better. Or at least, they like it better then their other choices in the traditional self-identification questionnaire: moderate and liberal.
Finally, a smaller group of self-identified “conservatives” (10 percent) could be classified as libertarian – conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues.
In other words, just because people identify as conservatives doesn’t mean that they are actually true conservatives. There are numerous reasons why they might identify so. It has long been the case that that the American public, on average, is operationally liberal and symbolically conservative. That is, that when asked about specific “liberal” government programs – be they spending on education, environmental protections, regulation of business – the majority of voters consistently say they approve. But when asked to self-identify themselves as liberals, moderates, or conservatives , many of the same voters say they are “conservative.”
LESSONS AND TAKEAWAYS
How can Obama and the Democrats win back the lost Independents? Since the Independent voters most likely to swing back into the Democratic column are also those who are the most performance-based and the least ideological, it makes sense for Obama to keep focused on economic recovery and let Republicans go pursue an extremist agenda. If Obama and the Democrats can pitch themselves as the hard-working, economy-focused force of moderation while Republicans engage in partisan bomb-throwing, many of the true swing voters who went Republican will surely have a bit of buyer’s remorse. Additionally, many younger Independents, who presumably stayed home in 2010, should come back out in 2012, helping Democrats again.
It is conventional wisdom by now that if the economy is recovering by 2012, Obama will benefit, and Democrats along with him, and this is surely true (assuming nothing else happens to overwhelm that effect). However, there is only so much the president can do to influence the economy, though he can certainly look like he is doing more.
Certainly, to the extent that Independents are distrustful of politics and parties and view both as too extreme, Obama and the Democrats will benefit by showing a willingness to compromise and moving to the political center, which Republicans are increasingly abandoning. A fundamentally moderate public will respond, especially if the economy is improving and it becomes less of an issue, meaning that something else will have to take its place in people’s minds.
If Democrats are willing to take a riskier strategy, they might goad Republicans into a few battles on issues like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or even immigration, battles that will draw out the crazy side of the Republican coalition while showing the public and generally socially-liberal Independents that Democrats are on the side of social progress.
PPI EVENT: The Restless Independents: Can Obama Win Them Back?