Independent voters may ultimately decide presidential elections, but who are they? Experts can't seem to agree on whether they're discerning, disengaged, secretly partisan or simply uninformed. Whatever they are, their numbers are on the rise and candidates want to win them over.
Presidential elections are all about independent voters. They're the ones who ultimately decide elections and who candidates want to sway. Although getting out a party's base is important, it often becomes secondary to the all-important swing vote. But who are these independent voters? Are they closet Republicans and Democrats who feel that being partisan carries a more negative connotation than refusing to declare allegiance to either party? Are they less informed than their partisan counterparts, as some political scientists have speculated? Is this an outdated notion in an era where fewer and fewer people feel represented by the two major parties?
The Upswing in Independents
The number of independent voters has increased in recent years. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, voters identifying themselves as independent now make up slightly more than a third of the voting public - a number comparable to self-identified Republicans and Democrats, whose numbers are 25 and 38 percent, respectively.
"We've got a government with very little accountability; we've got a government with no productivity; and we've got an increase in partisanship on both sides, which means they become less accountable and they do even less," says Bill Hillsman of Independent Voters of America on why more and more voters are turning away from the two major parties. "So, I think there's good reason for a lot of taxpayers to be frustrated right now."
Linda Killian, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents," ties the trend to a negative change in tone in politics occurring over the last couple of decades, and in particular, she credits Newt Gingrich for ushering in an era of hyperpartisanship.
"He went after Democrats and government and attacked both and said government is bad, government is the problem, and got people to believe that," says Killian. "It's not that we don't agree with [the Democrats'] ideas; they're terrible and they want to wreck the country. And so [he] took over Congress in 1994, and it was just a battle. But it hasn't really gone away." As a result, she says, bills that would once be considered bipartisan and noncontroversial are now difficult to pass.
Diversity Among Independents
In her book, Killian breaks independent voters into four groups. First are the NPR Republicans, who used to be known as Rockefeller Republicans, who are socially moderate and fiscally conservative and don't relate to today's Tea Party and religious right-dominated Republican Party. The second group are the America-first Democrats, formerly Reagan Democrats, who tend to be working- or lower-middle class. Although more socially conservative than NPR Republicans, they are concerned about trade issues after being impacted by outsourcing and offshoring. The Facebook generation are voters under 35, who decline to register with either major party in higher numbers than any other age group, even though the youth vote went for Obama in huge numbers in 2008. The final group is the Starbucks moms and dads, suburban parents concerned about the economy, jobs, education and national security.
How these groups will vote in November is still a question mark, says Killian. The NPR Republicans voted for Obama in 2008, although they could go for Romney this time around. The America-first Democrats did not vote for Obama in the last election, and although the conventional wisdom is that they will vote Republican again, Killian isn't sure. The Facebook generation votes less reliably than other age groups, and may not vote for Obama in the same numbers as before after being disillusioned following Obama's highly optimistic 2008 campaign - but they are very unlikely to go for Romney, Killian says. As for the Starbucks moms and dads, "They're up for grabs until they've made up their minds."
In keeping with the idea that political views often defy easy categorization, Independent Voters of America now has an online quiz for voters. "[We're trying] to map independent voters' thinking, issues, [and] preferences in more of a three-dimensional way than just a left-right continuum or a conservative-liberal continuum," says Hillsman, who also noted that independent voters tend to be more prevalent among those under 40, entrepreneurs and those who work in the tech sector. "And the example I use very often is libertarians. Democrats think libertarians are very conservative because, by and large, fiscally they are very conservative. Republicans think they're total liberal whack jobs because they don't believe in drug laws," says Hillsman. "They don't believe in a lot of restrictions on personal freedoms, etcetera. So, where do you put those people?"
A popular conception of an undecided voter is that of someone who is independent-minded and discerning instead of being blinded by party loyalty. On the other hand, political scientists like Philip Converse have theorized that independent voters are actually less informed on issues than their partisan counterparts, resulting in their less predictable voting patterns. In his famous paper "The Nature of Belief System in Mass Publics," Converse grouped voters into five categories: ideologues, or those with the strongest party identification; near-ideologues; individuals who vote according to a candidate's policy positions toward a particular demographic that the voter belongs to; those who vote according to how the country is doing at election time or according to major events a candidate or party is associated with; and lastly, voters who are barely informed at all. Voters who were ideologues were the least likely to "swing," or support another party, come election time, while voters in the last category were the most likely. There's also some disagreement on what constitutes an independent voter - some political scientists will argue that many who call themselves independents secretly favor one party and vote accordingly.
"Political scientists think everybody is less informed," says Hillsman in response to this view. "That's just the nature of political scientists. I know when I did [an event] at the National Press Club in late 1998 after Ventura was elected, [it] was palpable in the room that these political scientists and a lot of these press people just basically thought that Jesse Ventura got elected because a lot of stupid people came out to vote. And the facts are just the opposite. In Minnesota, we have much higher degrees of schooling and education than in almost any other state. And we have very, very high voter turnout on a regular basis."
In doing research for her book, Killian likewise found independent voters were often quite knowledgeable about current affairs. "I was going to a lot of political events in my four [swing] states. I was holding focus groups; I was going to college campuses; I was making phone calls - I found a lot of well-informed, engaged independents," she says. "Being dissatisfied with both parties doesn't mean you're not engaged and you don't pay attention."
Whither the Two Parties?
In an era when many voters are disenchanted with politics as usual, the time may come when independent candidates regularly gain enough traction to make them competitive with the usual Republican or Democrat options. However, fundraising is often more difficult without major party backing. Then there's the subject of open primaries: in half of American states, independent voters cannot vote in primary elections, which Killian calls "fundamentally undemocratic."
Also, in some states, the rules make it even more difficult to run without party affiliation. In her book, Killian uses the example of a former moderate Democrat in the Colorado state legislature who left her party to run as an independent. She ultimately had to run as a write-in candidate, and the Democratic party spent a large sum of money to defeat her.
However, with independents making up a percentage of the electorate comparable to those who align with major parties, this might change in the future. "Almost any credible independent candidate starts with 15 to 25 percent of the vote these days in almost any state," says Hillsman, who pointed to the example of independent candidate Kinky Friedman [www.kinkyfriedman.com]'s run for governor of Texas, which garnered substantial support in what is considered solidly Republican territory. "And whether that shrinks or rises to the degree that say, Jesse Ventura did in 1998 depends a lot on the campaign itself [and] fundraising."
Eventually, the two parties may have to acknowledge that voters often do not fall into simple red and blue categories and adjust their rhetoric accordingly. "I just firmly don't believe that the country is as divided as politicians and the media want us to believe," says Killian. "I think there are a lot of people in the middle. And people in the middle - it's not that they don't believe anything; it's that they have more nuanced views. They agree with the Republican Party on some things, they agree with the Democratic Party on some things; they have their own sort of mixed views. They can't be pigeonholed."
Still others argue that there is broad consensus among Americans on the major policy issues of the day, but that neither of the mainstream parties is willing to enact those policies the people favor.