How Independent Voters Work

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.
Robert Sullivan/Getty Images

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.