PARTY TIME: INDEPENDENTS

This is the fifth post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which looks at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. For three weeks we have focused on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economythe direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

RECAP FROM THE LAST TWO WEEKS
Twenty-six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31% percent Democratic, and 38% Independent, according to a recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is Independent.

The charts below show who Independents, Democrats and Republicans are. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 45% of Independents are women, but it does not show what percentage of women are Independents.

THE INDEPENDENT VOTING BLOC
Gender

Race  
AgeEducation
Data: PewMore Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party

Independents differ demographically from both Democrats and Republicans. The share of men among Independents, 55%, is higher than the general voting population. It’s even higher than that of the Republican Party, typically considered a male-dominated voting bloc. Independents are less white relative to the overall voting population (50% vs 70%) and are much more Hispanic (23% to 9%). Independents are also younger than partisans — 59% are under 50 years old while the same is true for 52% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans. Independents are also much less educated than both Democrats and Republicans. 46% of Independents have only ‘high school or less’ education, while 32% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans say the same. In some ways (age, racial diversity) the Independent voting bloc looks more like the Democratic Party) while in others (gender, education levels) it aligns more closely with the Republican Party.

Policies & Ideologies (Net Support)

Policies & Ideologies Continued

Data: Pew

Independents fall in-between Democrats and Republican on most political issues. These numbers do not measure intensity of individual voters’ feelings but how the voting bloc is split. Independents sit in-between Democrats and Republicans for five of the six policies in the chart. The exception is marijuana legalization, which Independents support in greater number than both Republicans and even Democrats. In addition to marijuana legalization, Independents are closer to Democrats than Republicans on support for same sex marriage, immigration, and a belief that the economy is generally unfair. The one issue on which Independents more closely align with Republicans is wanting a smaller government.  This ideological combination — socially liberal and wanting a smaller government — signals a libertarian streak in the small portion of the country that considers themselves true non-partisan independents

Independents are Less Engaged
Independent voters are less engaged than party members.   ‘No lean’-ers are almost half as likely to vote in 2018 as Republican party members — 33% compared to 61%. Relative to Republicans, Democrats vote at a slightly lower rate, 59%, but still vastly outperform Independents.

Their disengagement is as a result of their independence and a cause of it.  A lack of interest in politics causes independents to identify as such, simply because they are disengaged from political life. Other Independents do not alight ideologically with Democrats or Republicans, and, without a team to support, are less likely to engage in political activity. The directionality runs both ways.

Independents Don’t Like the Parties
The partisan antipathy dominating contemporary politics is not isolated to Democrats’ and Republicans’ mutual disdain for each other. Independents partake as well. But while most voters view their own party favorably and the other unfavorably, Independents are more even handed. 37% of Independents have an unfavorable view of both parties, 22% have a favorable view of both parties, and about 20% view one of the two parties favorably.
Independents who do lean towards a party say that “other party’s policies [are] bad for the country” is the number one reason for their partisan lean. These partisan leaners even view members of their own party unfavorably more than half of the time.

Independents Aren’t as Important as We Think
Independents are seen as the crucial tie-breakers in a nation evenly divided by two political parties — if independents swing towards one party, so goes the nation. This is not true. Independents (the only data available here is for leaners and non-leaners alike, so that what is used here) voted for Trump in 2016, but the popular vote went to Clinton. A similar split happened in 20002004 and 2012.  Elections can turn on how well each party turns out its base — a task that is often more challenging for the larger, but less engaged Democratic Party. The parties and their candidates cannot expect to win by only targeting the 7% of truly independent voters if it means sacrificing a portion of their base.

When choosing between energizing the party base versus swinging moderate/independent voters, the question parties should ask themselves is ‘why not both?’ In earlier posts, I suggested that the parties might do well by highlighting issues that 1) are seen as priorities by the general public and 2) the public supports their policies over the opposing party. But maybe they instead should focus on issues that 1) excite their base and 2) are supported by independents. If they go with route #2, Democrats should emphasize health care, the ‘unfair’ economy and socially liberal issues like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. Republicans have less to work with, but could highlight limited government and the economy (especially if it holds strong through 2020).