The Fear Factor? Upending the conventional wisdom on Independent Voters

March 26th, 2012



Why do many continue to be afraid to call an Independent an Independent? In a recent article, Jamelle Bouie argued that a paper we authored at Third Way showing that Independents are in fact Independent is incorrect. Mr. Bouie argues that Independents are a myth and neither party should try to appeal to them. While his comments are appreciated, he misses the boat on the data. His main critique is that we cherry-picked the election years used in our recent Leaners Don’t Fall report to ensure they represented the most conservative period in American history. Sadly, we didn’t pick the election years. We would prefer if the well-respected American National Election Studies had continued the panel study and had data at least through 2008. But they only conducted this survey for 3 elections—2000, 2002, and 2004. But even these three years are very illuminating. Independents, we found, were far more likely to switch allegiance than either Democrats or Republicans. By 2004, 38% of Democratic-leaning Independents—Independents who said they leaned towards the Democratic party in the 2000 election—voted Republican; less than one-quarter of even self-identified “weak” Democrats pulled the lever for the other side.

In addition, 2004 was not as conservative of a year as some like to think. The electorate was split 37%-37% between Democrats and Republicans, with 26% Independents. Seems like an even fight to us. Mr. Bouie suggests the wave Democratic elections of 2006 and 2008 would have given us different results. But that likely would have shown that Independents are capable of swinging back—not that they don’t swing at all. And 2010 would show that they swung yet again. In 2008, Independents voted for Democrats in the House ballot by 8 points. In 2010, Republicans won Independents by 19. That’s a 27 point shift in 2 years!  Clearly Independents are not a stable voting bloc. They actually swing—our point precisely. Let’s not pretend that Independents are phantoms. Believing they don’t exist may send them running to the other side.