How Independent Voters Work

In 2010, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist made headlines with his announcement that he was exiting the Republican Party and running for U.S. Senate as an independent. See American Politics in Souvenirs and Slogans Pictures.
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In 1976, political scientists Richard G. Niemi and Herbert F. Weisberg made a radical prediction about the future of American elections. Based on polling data, the academics asserted that Americans were in the midst of a transition away from establishment politics that pits Republicans against Democrats every four years. Bell-bottom-clad young adults at the time demonstrated little loyalty to either major party, which the political scientists believed might portend an approaching era of independent voters and candidates [source: Bartels]. In addition, a 1976 survey conducted by the American National Election Studies group concluded that just 46 percent of adults even noticed significant differences between the Republican and Democratic parties [source: Day].

Thirty-five years later, a Gallup poll suggested that Niemi and Weisberg had made a winning forecast. As of 2011, 40 percent of American voters identified as independent, the highest proportion on record since Gallup began tallying up political affiliations in 1988 [source: Jones]. Though there has been a statistical uptick in self-labeled independent voters in recent decades, that development hasn't brought along a complementary decline in partisanship, however. On the contrary, in the 2008 American National Election Studies survey, 78 percent of respondents agreed that "important differences" exist between the two major parties [source: Day].

Even in a contemporary political atmosphere still dominated by conflicting parties that generally agree on minimal platforms, independent voters' stock has continued to rise because they've come to represent one of the most influential blocs within America's diverse voting pool. The group first received national recognition in the 1980 presidential race when the so-called Reagan Democrats pulled their levers for the Gipper, motivated to cross party lines due to his social conservatism. More recently, swing voters -- independents known to party hop from election to election -- were considered crucial for President Barack Obama's 2008 victory; he claimed 52 percent of independent voters [source: Zeleny and Sussman].

But why do they go rogue in the first place?

Who are independent voters?

According to a September 2010 study conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Center for the People and the Press, independents are the largest voting group in the United States, followed by Democrats, then Republicans; that said, more than half of independents formerly identified with one or both of those major parties [source: Pew Research Center]. In a related development, Democratic and Republican rosters have slimmed by a combined 2.5 million since 2008 [source: Wolf]. Explanations for going independent reveal a broad unease with establishment politics, which may have been aggravated in the past 20 years by mounting infighting between Republicans and Democrats, as well as a legacy of negative political campaigning. Likewise, the top two reasons independents offered Pew researchers for not siding with the donkey or elephant: political parties caring more about special interests than citizens' needs and governmental mistrust.

For her 2012 book "The Swing Vote," Linda Killian interviewed a host of self-identified independent voters who echoed similar concerns about the Washington money machine. The 2012 presidential election is tracking to be the costliest campaign in American history, likely racking up more than $1 billion in expenses [source: Salyer]. Snagging a Senate or House of Representative seat isn't cheap, either; Killian cited a Campaign Finance Institute statistic pinning the cost of becoming a U.S. senator at $9 million in 2010 [source: Killian]. In a nation recovering from an economic recession that left scores of households in poor fiscal shape, that kind of spending clearly hasn't sat well with independents.

Independent voters also may decide to distance themselves from Republicans and Democrats because they're caught ideologically somewhere in the middle. A chunk of them espouse socially liberal stances, such as reproductive rights for women, while at the same time preferring fiscal conservatism, including lower taxes [source: Killian]. Demographically, independent voters aren't as easy to categorize. Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, conservative-leaning older men living in rural and suburban areas, and more liberally inclined younger urban single women emerged as two coveted independent sub-groups [source: Penn]. At the same time, Latino and Asian-American voters have increasingly disengaged from partisan politics and now comprise up to 40 percent of independents [source: Ryo]. This handful of independent groups is indicative not only of the challenge of capturing their votes, but also the expanding diversity among U.S. voters.

Adding even more nuance to how independents behave at the polls, here's a final wrinkle: they may not be all that independent after all.

Independent, Not Undecided

Just because independent voters don't care to choose a party doesn't mean they haven't chosen a candidate.
Just because independent voters don't care to choose a party doesn't mean they haven't chosen a candidate.
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Independent voters aren't synonymous with undecided voters. The groups do overlap with some independent voters leaving their final candidate decision until the last minute, but that doesn't accurately reflect non-partisans at large. Especially during election years, undecided voters are far more difficult to track down, and also tend to be less informed politically and less likely to exercise their voting rights than independents. In August 2012, three months away from a presidential contest, Gallup estimated that between 6 and 8 percent of voters remained undecided, and a survey commissioned by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal came up with an even lower figure at just 3 percent [source: Epstein].

More perplexingly, the "independent" descriptor might not even be synonymous with these attention-showered indie voters. Data indicate that only a minority of independents don't distinctly lean toward one side or the other of the conservative-liberal spectrum. Many leave behind paper trails at the ballot box that fall along party lines rather than hopscotching back and forth. For instance, Emory University political science professor Alan I. Abramowitz culled through exit polls from the 2008 presidential election and found that only 7 percent of self-identified independents had voted genuinely independently, betraying no Republican or Democratic persuasion [source: Page]. But what about flip-flop from the 2008 presidential election that saw independents going Democratic, and the 2010 U.S. congressional elections in which registered independents overwhelmingly voted Republican? Again, breakdowns of the exit polling data revealed that Republicans tipped the scales because more consistently conservative-leaning independent showed up at the polls versus liberal-leaning indies [source: Daily Kos].

Putting all of the independent voter information together provides a picture, therefore, not so much of a movement toward moderation, but distaste for the nature of modern politics. Granted, a large swatch of independents desire a balance of social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and bipartisanship [source: Killian]. Even among those more moderate voters, their policy priorities nevertheless stack up decisively in favor of Republican or Democratic candidates, which leads to the ultimate irony of independent voters: they abstain from party labels, yet the smartest way for politicians to court those powerful votes likely is to stick to their Republican or Democratic guns rather than waffling toward the middle.

Author's Note

As the 2012 presidential campaign season has developed over recent months, it initially seemed like women were the most prized and courted voting bloc on the block. But after researching How Independent Voters Work, I realized that I was wrong. These nonpartisans are the largest and most influential group in the American electorate, and they share something in common with female voters. As I outlined in "Do men and women vote differently?," women are a monolithic demographic that side overwhelmingly with one political party or candidate. There are mini-demographics within the overarching demographic that have conflicting viewpoints and allegiances -- just like independent voters. Young, urban women, for instance, are well represented among independents, but so are rural and suburban males. And that's the trickiest thing about analyzing massive voting groups like independents that comprise 40 percent of potential voters: in a country as enormous and diverse as the United States, there's always plenty of room for exceptions to the rule.

Related Articles


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