Triad City Beat | Independent voters can be crucial in elections – but they are quite unpredictable, not “shadow parties”.

Featured Photo: Pennsylvania’s independent voters helped elect Democrat John Fetterman, seen here, over GOP nominee for the US Senate seat, Mehmet Oz. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

This story was originally published by The Conversation. Story by Thom Reilly, Arizona State University

In the end there was no red wave. And there was no blue wave.

There was an independent wave.

Pollsters and pundits expected independent voters to switch to Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections, as they did in 2014 when Barack Obama was president. By that time, independent turnout in the midterm elections was 29 percent of all voters, and the GOP won an additional 13 seats in Congress.

Expectations for the 2022 midterms were based on a similar pattern for the 2018 midterms, when Donald Trump was President. Independents then made up 30 percent of the voters, and they broke 54 to 42 percent for Democrats

Almost the mirror image. But mirrors don’t always reflect reality.

Current Gallup polls show that self-proclaimed independents made up an average of 42% of the US population last year. Their influence was felt in the midterms of 2022.

Nationally, these non-aligned voters accounted for 31 percent of voters at the 2022 midterm. Despite the fact that the incumbent president was a Democrat, they broke 2 percentage points for the Democrats, according to the Edison Research Survey. They voted for Democrats by a far larger margin in key states with contested Senate elections — by 20 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 11 percentage points in Georgia and 16 percentage points in Arizona, where independents accounted for a full 40 percent of voters.

Independent voters in the midterms of 2022 made a crucial difference in tight elections.

This came as a surprise to many pollsters and pundits who had predicted independents would break for the GOP. They attributed the pro-Democracy leanings of these impartial voters to independents’ distrust of Republicans, which eclipsed their fear and distrust of inflation and the economy.

Maybe like this. But as someone who studies independent voters in the US, I believe pollsters were wrong because so little is known about the voting behavior of independent voters.

The continued flight of millions of voters from the Republican and Democratic parties is changing the country’s political landscape in ways that no one can control or even predict. It threatens the basis on which campaigns and elections have been analyzed.

This challenges how America has thought about politics for generations: that it’s a two-party game and people vote for the party they are loyal to. That is changing with the growing number of independent voters.

Independent voters or shadow parties?

As detailed in our recently published book The Independent Voter, my co-authors Jacqueline Salit and Omar Ali and I outline how political scientists and the media are extremely skeptical and hostile to independent voters. They often conclude that independents are uninformed, uninvolved “leaners” or “shadow parties” who are likely to vote for Democrats or Republicans but just won’t say so out loud.

We believe this conclusion is based on the two-party bias ingrained in the US political system. This bias has distorted the research and analytical tools used to understand this community of Americans.

A fundamental misunderstanding

Beginning in 1952, when individuals identified themselves to pollsters and researchers as independent voters, they were asked a follow-up question: do they prefer one party over the other?

Because most independents have indicated a leaning toward one of the two major political party’s candidates, political scientists have dubbed them “leaners,” independents who are likely to vote for one party or the other. Political scientists also created a category called “pure independents,” which was used to describe the fewer than 10 percent of people who genuinely refused to say whether they leaned one way or the other.

Based on our research, we believe this conclusion is a fundamental misunderstanding of independent voters and their voting behavior. This misunderstanding has led to misconceptions about this growing population of US citizens who have chosen to distance themselves from the two major parties.

Currently, 42 percent of Americans describe themselves as independent. This is the highest percentage of independents in more than 75 years of public opinion polling. They rarely made up more than 20 percent of voters between 1940 and 1960.

Independents move

Choosing to identify as independent makes sense, especially in these politically hyperpolarized times when many Americans feel at home in either party or no longer.

This is why Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced her December 2022 decision to change her party affiliation from Democratic to Independent. Sinema said she believes that “[e]Today, Americans are increasingly being left behind by the rigid partisanship of national parties, which has hardened in recent years. Pressures in both parties marginalize leaders, allowing the loudest and most extreme voices to dictate their respective parties’ priorities.”

Surprisingly, little research has been done to examine the meaning and culture of political independence, including very basic research on independent voting patterns over time.

Two women from the shoulders up, one with short black hair and the other with medium length brown hair and glasses.
U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, right, with GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine in the background, announced in December 2022 that she had left the Democratic Party and become independent. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In our recent study, published in the journal Politics & Policy, my colleague Dan Hunting and I analyzed data from American National Election Studies on political identification and voting choices from 1972 to 2020.

We have observed significant volatility in party loyalty among independent voters in more than one election. We found that independent voters were not reliably tied to one party or the other in their votes. From election to election, they voted Democrat, then Republican, and back again.

We also found evidence that significant numbers of independents enter and exit independent status from one election to the next, and in many cases actually register as members of one party or another, sometimes differently from one election to the next.

We suspect that this is a function of the political candidates running at the time. It also reflects the fact that many states do not allow independents to vote in primary elections or otherwise restrict their participation in primary elections by requiring them to vote for a major party in order to be able to vote. Currently, independents are barred or restricted from primary elections in half the states. And a significant number of independents are similarly excluded from presidential primaries and caucus votes.

You are unpredictable

Why is that important?

We believe that labeling independent leaners as Republicans or Democrats mischaracterizes American partisanship and overestimates party voting rates. Most studies that find leaners to be partisans simply do not account for a significant number of independents who enter and leave independent status. These studies also fail to account for independent voting patterns over time.

In our research, we found that independents who vote as Democrats or Republicans in one election are often less likely to vote as Democrats in the next election.

Which party candidates or initiatives they vote for often depends on specific candidates or issues on the ballot and on the political circumstances of a particular election cycle.

As a result, independents in midterm elections may have voted against the party in power for a decade. But as circumstances and options change, so do their voting patterns.

This may prove to be a key characteristic of independent individuals: that individual candidates, issues and the broader social environment – not party loyalty – determine their decisions.

Unpredictability characterizes independent voters today. This is what gives them their power – and therefore a deeper understanding of this group is urgently needed.

Thom Reilly, Professor & Co-Director, Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy, School of Public Affairs, University of Arizona

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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