The political focus is always on Democrats and Republicans, especially when major elections loom. Of that, there’s little debate. But numbers say the conventional view is skewed, far from what’s happening in America’s electorate.
In May, Pew Research reported that 38% of Americans said they are politically independent. Gallup concurs. The survey company reported the same number, 38%, in its most recent poll (September 3-15) (31% replied Democrat and 29% answered Republican). None of this is new, either. Historical data from Gallup data confirm it. Go back four years to September 2015, and it was 43% Independent. Four years before that—in September 2011—it was 46% Independent.
Voter registration data offer a similar portrait. Not all states require a declaration of political affiliation at registration time, but 31 states and the District of Columbia do. At mid-year, 31.5 million voters nationally registered as Independent. That’s 28% of the 111 million registered voters in those 32 jurisdictions. In ten of those jurisdictions, more voters registered as Independent vis-à-vis those who signed on as Democrat or Republican.
What makes Independents interesting—and relevant—is that nowhere else in America is there such a large mass of voters as politically diverse and party adverse.
In some states, independent is the fast-growing segment of the electorate. In Florida, the number of voters who registered ‘independent’ increased by 47% from 2004-2014. As of August 31, 27% of the state’s electorate registered as Independent. In California, The Public Policy Institute of California reports that the percent of California voters who registered as Independent has doubled since 1994. The number of registered Independents in the Golden State is now 25.5% of the electorate, surpassing (for the first time) the percentage of voters who declared for a major party (in CA’s case, Republican).
Who are these voters? Pew reports that 93% of self-declared Independents ‘lean’ to one major party or the other. Leaners are closer in political views to similarly aligned party partisans than they are to Independents who lean in the other party’s direction. Those who don’t lean (7%) tend to be less active politically than party partisans. And not surprisingly, Independents tend to be more cynical about the political parties vis-à-vis party partisans.
In a recent article published at FiveThiryEight.com, Lee Drutman offers additional insights into the independent slice of the American electorate. For starters, Drutman says that the aggregate portrait reported by Pew and Gallup tells only part of the story. Another part—a critical part—is diversity of views.
To arrive at that conclusion, Drutman analyzed data from The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group survey. He focused on two issues—preferred economic orientationin society (from more egalitarian to more market-oriented) and preferred stance on immigration (from pro- to anti-immigration). As expected, self-identified Democrats were consistently liberal concerning economic orientation and immigration, while self-identified Republicans were more likely to be market-oriented and anti-immigration.
Independents? Drutman says they were “all over the map.” “Some independents are market-oriented and anti-immigration,” Drutman explained. “More are the opposite and many are consistent liberals on economic and immigration policy questions. Some are consistent conservatives. Some are somewhere in the middle.”
Drutman’s take-away? “The next time anybody says that some policy position will win over genuine independent voters, they aren’t addressing an obvious question: Which independent voters?” (Drutman’s italics)
All that I’ve presented here—from Pew, Gallup, voter registration data, and Drutman—aligns with my understanding and personal experience. A large segment of the electorate isn’t aligned with either major party. It is independent. At election time, many Independents vote for candidates associated with one party or the other. And in terms of thought and views, America’s independents—using Drutman’s language—“are all over the map.”
What makes Independents interesting—and relevant—is that nowhere else in America is there such a large mass of voters as politically diverse and party adverse. Yet, Independents are rarely viewed as a legitimate alternative to American politics as usual. Instead, they are often met with shrill voices. ‘Disengaged,’ ‘part of the problem,’ ‘unable to decide,’ and ‘swaying elections in the wrong direction’ are four tag-lines I’ve experienced.
Part of the reason is that Independents are a disparate collection of individual voters known more for their atomistic nature than for what they might represent as a persistent, collective force. Yes, it is possible to organize the collective (even reach into party partisans) to achieve electoral reforms. Michigan’s successful effort (2018) to counter gerrymandering is an example. But outside of organizing for electoral reform, Independents lack identity with political oomph. That doesn’t change when Independents run for office. Independent politicians come in many stripes. At issue, first and foremost, is organizing the Independent electorate, not promoting Independent candidacies.
What’s required to change that picture? More research is needed to dig into the innards of this misunderstood and inchoate collective. More discussion needs to be had about how research can be put into practice. And more work needs to be devoted to figuring out how to mobilize a diverse collective. Sociologists call it ‘the strength of weak ties.’
Make no mistake about it. If America’s Independents could evolve into a distinguishable and potent assemblage, then America’s politics would change markedly. American may not need a third party, but its politics could certainly benefit from a ‘third force.’