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December 23, 2011 10:47 PM UTC

The Myth of the Independent Voter

  • by: rdawkins22

(Interesting question in a state where Independents/Unaffiliateds can swing any election… – promoted by ProgressiveCowgirl)

Richard Wolf at USA Today reported today that the number of Independent voters have declined precipitously since 2008. Examining the registration statistics from 28 states, Wolf writes that voters are leaving the two major parties in ‘droves.’  

He goes on to suggest that:

The pattern continues a decades-long trend that has seen a diminution in the power of political parties, giving rise to independents as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader and the popularity this year of libertarian Republican Ron Paul.

Wolf goes on to suggest that this trend could impact the 2012 Presidential election in key swing states like Colorado. Contrary to Wolf’s assertion, however, there is little evidence for a decline in either of the two major parties.  

The problem with Wolf’s argument is that the increased number of Independents does not necessarily lead to his conclusions.  Indeed, the implicit assumption that most people hold about Independents is that they are unaffected by party ID, which political scientists have long agreed is the core consideration for understanding American voting behavior. That assumption, however, is far from true.

In their important book, The Myth of the Independent Voter,  Bruce E. Keith et al. argue that far from being unaffected by party ID, the vast majority of Independent voters are actually closet partisans.  By examining polling data gathered by the University of Michigan as part of the American National Election Studies since 1952, they find that even though there has been a remarkable increase in the proportion of Independent voters, most still lean toward one party or the other, so much so that they function essentially like partisans.  The number of true Independents, the authors argue, have remained relatively constant throughout the post-World War II period.  

Of course, it is impossible for Wolf to know if there has been an increase in true Independent voters or just closet partisans simply by looking at registration statistics. Polling data would be needed to make that kind of conclusion for his newspaper report. Nevertheless, this oversight does diminish the importance of the ‘trend’ identified by Wolf.  In fact, the increased polarization of the electorate as well as the ideological “sorting-out” that made conservative almost synonymous with Republican has, if anything, strengthened the influence of political parties and call into question what political scientists call ‘the decline of party thesis.’  

It is unlikely, in other words,  that the decline in major party registration will have any significant impact on the stability of the two party system in general, let alone the 2012 Presidential election.  


18 thoughts on “The Myth of the Independent Voter

  1. I am now back to being Independent.  My former CU professor of African American Studies, Dr. King, made me realize a harsh truth during our last conversation.

    I was screaming about leadership and our broken system.  He asked why i think the system is broken.  I told him about a 100 reasons.  He then said, “In society the system is never broken.  We just need to look at “who” the system is working for.”

    The Republicans did not get us in this situation alone.  They had help.

    My anger is directed at the fact the Dems had the House, Senate and White House and did nothing but complain they couldn’t pass anything because of the Republicans.  The Republicans get a hold of the House and they supposedly can BLOCK everything.

    Are the Republicans just smarter, better and more informed on the strategies of politics?  Maybe.  Or are all of them are working together to ensure the system of creating Billionaires is well funded and intact?

    With over 2/3 of the Congress making over a million dollars, how do you think they would ALL vote?  

    These people have nothing in common with the rest of us.  Nothing.  They vote themselves pay raises and bitch about not getting paid enough, all while making their corporate friends billionaires and setting themselves up for a cushy retirement.

    It is time for a third party, a party for the middle class, you know those people that make $250K per year according to Romney.

    1. Because they are often tied to paycheck-to-paycheck existences, nor likely able to take off a year or two to build up a campaign organization.

      Throughout our history, the people that ran for office usually could afford to, or had occupations that allowed them the freedom to pursue a livelihood while also running for office.  The other possibility was to rise up through a political machine that could provide a day job with the time and financial flexibility to run for office too (at the price of being “their boy”).

      The advent of the 40 hour work week returning modest earnings, and the prioritization of building a stable career rarely encourages taking the plunge into running for political office.

      The price of running for office is something only a narrow slice of our populace can afford to pay — which explains the preponderance of millionaires in Congress.

      If the ecosystem surrounding running for office encouraged 20-something slackers living at home with their parents, then you’d start to see more of them running.  With current demographics headed in that direction, I am only half-jesting.

        1. Unemployed people were okay when they just sat around accepting pity. When they started asking tough questions about an economic system that demands two full-time incomes per household to escape poverty, but doesn’t provide enough jobs for every household to even have one income, they became “slackers.” You have to discredit people if they start shining lights on the cobwebs in the corners…

          (That said, as a 20-something, some of the unemployed, basement-dwelling people in my age group ARE total slackers. But those that are, have parents who continue to feed, clothe, and house them into their twenties and let them get away with making excuses not to at least find part-time work or cobble together services they can peddle around the neighborhood. Someone could make a pretty penny doing whole-family interventions for slacking young adults and enabling parents…)

          1. Should be “Who do we want the system to work for?”

            Seriously, right now, it’s working for the top 1 to 5% (including the millionaires that we dutifully elect).

            I’m not saying the Populists of the late 19th century (William Jennings Bryant) or the Huey Long’s in the ’30’s were a better choice.

            But to get an authentic middle-class representation in Congress, we’ll have to change the ecosystem that feeds the current system.

            I kind of think if you want representation of and by your peers, you’ll have to draft them, perhaps a jury-duty type of call to service.  Cuts down on the campaign funding problem too.  Say, one to two years of obligatory national service (but you can choose the point in your life that best fits your ability and desire to serve)?

            As it is said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result (Quantum Physics excepted 😉

            1. Military, peace corps, Americorps, Teach America, or a yet-to-be-launched medical service corps (which would come with medical training in exchange for years of service). Two years solid either after high school or after completing secondary education, OR commit to 10 hours per week of service until you’ve put in two years’ worth of hours.

              I’m sitting across the room from two Peace Corps alums (Lesotho and Ecuador, respectively) as I type this, and both saw enormous personal growth as a result of serving. Not everyone can drop everything to go to Lesotho to teach science, but everyone can and should contribute significantly to their country in some way.

              Of course, one issue with service mandates that I can’t resolve easily is: How do you deal with those who are required to serve but refuse to like it? If it’s a national mandate, you can’t really kick people out for bad behavior, but you also can’t really militarize institutions like the Peace Corps and throw malcontents in “the brig.” American culture is so centered around individualism and freedom that I see massive disciplinary issues plaguing any national mandatory service program.  

              1. Sign up for Congress, get an education!

                Seriously, make the incentives enough to attract the profile you desire, but not so much that you attract only gadflies.

                Set standards, screen for disqualifiers, and build a support system, so you can actually “graduate” from local, state and even national service.  Congress, for example could be comprised of a few thousand representatives.  Break them into focus groups to tackle specific issues, debate the pros and cons of a solution, and then present it to the main body for an up or down vote.  Single subject.  The staff would provide specific expertise on a rotating basis so that vested interests wouldn’t be able to take root and unduly influence the system.

                It’s nice to dream anyway…

          2. General Motors (or Government Motors as some refer to it) now has a three tier pay scale. The long time line workers who haven’t lost their jobs (yet) make an average of $29/hr plus benefits. The next tier is $19/hr with benefits.

            The lowest tier is $9/hr with no benefits (no health insurance). This puts a family of four at this tier below the poverty level for a full time blue collar job. Presumably the taxpayers will be subsidizing GM at this tier because that family will most likely have to be covered by Medicaid.

  2. I’ve met quite a few people who identified with a political party but somehow believed that registering as independents  will reduce the mailings and phone calls. Little did they realize that a closely contested race with enough money to be annoying will result in them getting hit from both sides

  3. Independent doesn’t equate with middle-of-the-road or “in between”. After a few election cycles as an independent I realized I’d been voting a straight Democratic ticket and decided, hey, this doesn’t make much sense. Independents, by and large, just don’t want to think of themselves as followers. It’s a moral high ground sort of thing.

    1. I know 3 independents — one a Tea Party enthusiast, the other two would be considered RINOs, for being socially progressive, and fiscally conservative.

      None care much for their former affiliation with the Republican Party. But, as with my mixed feelings about organized religion (my roots are with Southern Baptists), we all feel an affinity for the principles of our heritage, but we don’t have a desire to toe the official line or strictly follow their mandates.

      It’s probably a good thing that Colorado has a balance of R’s, D’s an I’s.  With newly competitive districts, it will keep our representatives honest, and I do believe will result in moderation in our political choices.

  4. I think it obvious that “independent” voters are “closet partisans,” at least to some degree.  The question is how partisan those “independent” voters are.  

    It’s something like a Bell curve – there are smaller numbers of people on either end of the curve, with most clustering towards the center.  What I’ve seen happen is that the GOP has been on a steady course to the right, while the Democratic party has drifted to the right relative to where it has positioned itself previously.  

    What that means to me is that the “two party” system remains stable, and as Pols points out, the rise of “independent” voters is unlikely to have much impact on the stability of the two party system.  However, if the Democratic party were to reverse its rightward drift, and effectively repeat what the GOP has done but to the left, there would be space for a centrist third party to emerge – the Coffee Party, anyone – and that would create interesting possibilities and dynamics (to understate things somewhat).  

    The Democratic Party, in its movement to the right, has effectively been trying to pick up those former GOP members who have registered as Independent.  If the Democrats are not trying to be all things to all people, they are doing a good job of appearing as if that is exactly what they want to do – and that costs the Democratic Party clarity of position.  If the Democratic party recognizes that it has become too diffused and starts to try to consolidate, there will be a hole in the center that a third party could fill.  

    I would have said that would be unlikely a few years ago, but with the GOP showing no signs of moderating (and the risk the GOP faces is irrelevance as it moves farther and farther, something that cannot be lost on the old-line GOP members), and with the Democrats showing little sign of consciousness of their diffusion, I think a centrist third party could indeed emerge and begin to grow.

    There are, of course, huge obstacles in the way.  However, I think the possibility exists because SO many people are SO disgusted with partisan bickering, and are beginning to understand just how little either of the parties care about them.  With the GOP, that’s fairly obvious – but it’s also true about the Democratic Party – vide, all the threats of various groups to not work GOTV, to not pound the pavement for candidates with whom they’re dissatisfied (President Obama being at the top of the list), etc.  

    And for those who say the Democrats could fill that void – no, they can’t.  They have shown zero comprehension of what is happening and no ability to leverage it to their advantage.  

    Yikes – perhaps I should write a diary on the subject – this is getting awfully long for a comment!

    1. The problem with any third party, centrist, leftist, or rightist, is that in a system of single member districts it will often result in disproportionate representation of one of the parties.

      As an example I will point to the 2005 General Election in the United Kingdom. Labour got 62.38% of the seats in parliament with 40.7% of the vote. In the most recent election the Conservatives “won” with 47.1% of the seats and 36.1% of the popular vote.

      This is not to say that it should not be tried, but a very real possibility with a centrist party inserting itself between the Democrats and Republicans would be to give less representation to centrist views. It would largely depend upon the particulars of personality, popularity, positioning, etc. in the new political landscape. But one possibility is that the new centrist party would end up throwing the election to the plurality of dedicated leftists or rightists remaining in Democratic and Republican parties rather than actually winning.

      As a leftist I am all for the idea as I would hope that it would absorb the sane portion of the Republican party and allow my party to trade power periodically with a sane opposition while leaving the conservatives out in the cold.

    2. have been claiming for at least 30 years that Americans want a centrist third party, and yet every such attempt has ended up supporting some rich dude from the top down (instead of an actual grassroots party), and every such attempt has failed.

      You say people are unhappy, but you give no evidence that things will be any different for a new third party than they were for John Anderson or Ross Perot or any of their less-successful imitators.

      Face it. The audience for a centrist third party is sleepy pundits, not voters. Voters want politicians who care about something, even if they don’t agree with it.

  5. they are far less ideological and issue driven, they tend to be referrendum voters, they are often less reliable voters in terms of turnout, their support for candidates in particular races varies more than it does for partisan voters.

    One can have some weakly partisan voters who are pre-disposed to vote one way or the other (often similar to their neighbors), but independent voters in districts with even partisan divides still matter and treating them as a block is a useful heuristic way to estimate voter behavior.

  6. I registered thousands of people in ’08, most of whom were voting for Obama, but they were afraid to claim a party. They did not trust the government with that information.

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