Yes, Independent Swing Voters Are Real. And May Decide Who Wins Elections

They hate attack ads and want change, but believe the American political system is rigged. But independent voters may be our best hope to fix Washington.

11.03.14 10:45 AM ET

This midterm election has been pretty terrible measured by the metrics that independent/swing voters care about. Instead, there’s been a record $4 billion spent mostly on vacuous television attack ads, little substantive discussion about important issues or a clear argument for how Republicans or Democrats would lead the nation, and the feeling that nothing will really change in Washington no matter which party wins control of the Senate.

That’s why a lot of voters could stay home November 4th. 

But in the closest races around the country—the 10 Senate races that are within five percentage points, including those in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Iowa, at least half a dozen gubernatorial contests, and a handful of House races—the swing voters who do show up could determine the outcomes.

Which raises a nagging question: Despite all evidence to the contrary, why do so many pundits and academics insist independent/swing voters are just low-information “partisan leaners” who really identify and vote with one party?

Unlike the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, and unicorns, truly independent voters—those who are centrist ticket-splitters unaffiliated with either party and who “swing” from election to election—are not a myth.

Liberals seem to be more adamant about the idea that true swing voters don’t really exist than conservatives, but partisans on both sides can’t seem to understand that most Americans have a complicated blend of views that don’t fit neatly into the stated positions of either party.

Most Americans aren’t crazy about Obamacare, but they also don’t think it should be repealed—just fixed.

They don’t think abortion should be outlawed, but they also don’t think it should be limitless.

They believe in background checks, some gun control, and sensible regulations—like outlawing assault weapons—that would still allow people to keep most of their guns.

They believe in tax and entitlement reform, but think it needs to be done fairly to address fiscal issues and the deficit and feel the rich need to pay more than they have been since the Bush tax cuts.

Over the past several decades, the number of well-informed independents who vote regularly has been steadily rising, even as their dissatisfaction with both parties has increased, resulting in volatile, whipsaw elections. 

As measured by Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and the American National Election Studies, the number of Americans who consider themselves independent is now somewhere between 40 to 45 percent, by far the largest group of voters. While Republican and Democratic party registrations have been declining in recent years, unaffiliated voter registration is on the rise, especially among millennials. A majority of those under 30 are independents.

Massachusetts and New Jersey are just two of the states where independents are a majority of registered voters.

Even though Massachusetts is considered to be one of the most Democratic states in the country, there’s an extremely tight governor’s race this year between Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley that could be decided by the very independent/swing voters who handed Scott Brown a Senate win over Coakley in 2010.

New Jersey has 2.6 million unaffiliated registered voters (PDF)—almost as many as Republicans and Democrats combined and many of them are swing voters.

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Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (who is running for reelection this year) won a special election in 2013 after capturing almost 55 percent of the vote and just over half the counties in New Jersey, just a month before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won reelection with 60 percent of the vote, carrying all but two of the state’s counties.

It seems a good bet that a significant number of New Jersey voters cast ballots for both Booker and Christie.

Or consider recent national elections. In 2006 independents chose Democratic House candidates over Republicans, 57 to 39 percent. In 2008, Democrats won independent voters by eight points but then lost them by 19 points in 2010.

In 2008, Barack Obama won 52 percent of independent voters, but in 2012 he won only 45 percent of the independent vote although 56 percent of self-described moderates (including moderate Democrats) voted for him.

With that kind of track record, how can anyone make the argument that independent/swing voters are reliably partisan? To argue that these voters don’t exist defies both data and logic.

When answering a survey and asked to choose which party they identify with, independents may cite one party over another, but for many swing voters that preference shifts from election to election.

Independents also range across the ideological spectrum. Some are on the far-left and support candidates like Vermont’s self-described democratic socialist independent Sen. Bernie Sanders; others are libertarians on the far-right.

Sixty percent of independents say they are not aligned with a party because they agree with the Republicans on some things, such as the economy and national security, and with the Democrats on social issues, according to Pew findings.

Independents care more about the deficit than Democratic voters do, more about the environment than Republicans, and less about social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, than voters from either party.

They also say they are independent because “both parties care more about special interests than about average Americans.”

Independents are turned off by negative campaign ads and more likely to say they want substantive discussions from the candidates and the media than partisan voters.

Pew estimates the number of swing voters at about 25 percent, a quarter of the electorate.

Despite the prevalent view among political scientists that true independent/swing voters are rare and most are just partisan leaners, there are a few academics who disagree.

Prof. William Mayer of Northeastern estimated in his 2008 book The Swing Voter in American Politics that 23 percent of voters swing.

Russell Dalton, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of 2012’s The Apartisan American, agrees with the assessment that independent/swing voters are about a quarter of the electorate.

That number has been steadily increasing since the 1960s, when the number of Americans identifying with the two parties began to decline. Dalton calls this group of voters “apartisans”—well-informed and well-educated voters who are disproportionately young and turned off by both political parties. They vote as often as partisans but are not driven by party loyalty, Dalton found.

Apartisan-independent voters, Dalton writes, “are more likely to approach each election without a preconceived notion of who they will vote for.”

These voters make decisions about who they will vote for later in campaigns and shift their decisions based on what is happening. Between 1964 and 2008, these apartisan independents were twice as likely as other voters to switch their vote between elections, according to Dalton.

These are the kind of voters who are thinking about voting for independent Greg Orman for the U.S. Senate seat in Kansas because, as Dalton writes, they “are open to political change and will support a third-party candidate who shares their values.”

The distinction between engaged “apartisan” independents and the low-information voters who Dalton calls “apolitical” independents is an incredibly important one. Apolitical independents don’t vote regularly and aren’t as well-informed. The media and academics love to portray these voters as the typical independent when they represent less than half of them. 

Dalton’s findings about the critical subset of well-informed, engaged independent voters squares with what I found when I was traveling the country and talking with voters for my book, The Swing Vote. In hundreds of interviews with independent voters, I found most of them to be well-informed and to care about the political process—even though the two parties have done their best to alienate them through attacks, gridlock, and dysfunction.

I came up with four groups that predominate among these independent/ swing voters: NPR Republicans, who are socially moderate and fiscally conservative; America First Democrats, who tend to be male and more socially conservative (formerly known as Reagan Democrats); the Facebook generation of voters younger than 35, who lean libertarian on social and economic issues; and Starbucks Moms and Dads, suburban voters who make up a huge chunk of the electorate and are reliably unpredictable.

In June, the Pew Research Center released an extensive survey of 10,000 Americans that unsurprisingly found that the political class and those who strongly identify with a party are more polarized than they have been in two decades. But the survey also revealed that most Americans are not in either polarized camp, a finding that was largely ignored by the media.

The U.S. is not a totally polarized nation—it just feels that way because those with polarized views speak the loudest and are the ones getting elected to office.

Pew found that 39 percent of Americans have an equal number of liberal and conservative positions and a mix of ideological views on immigration, gun control and health-care policy.

Morris Fiorina, of Stanford University, has written frequently about the political center in American politics including in his book Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America.

Writing in The Washington Post in June, Fiorina asserted that the American electorate on a scale of conservative to moderate to liberal has been relatively unchanged over the past 40 years and most Americans still consider themselves moderates.

But this huge group of moderates is being very poorly represented by a political system that has become alarmingly bipolar, not to mention dysfunctional, accounting for the huge dissatisfaction most voters feel for both parties.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, interest in the midterm elections among all voters is at a record low. Forty-three percent of voters have a negative image of the Democratic Party but 50 percent have a negative view of the Republican Party and only 30 percent of voters say their congressional representative deserves to be reelected.

Voters believe the political system and their elected leaders are failing them, the system is rigged, and it’s not going to make any difference whether they vote or who gets elected.

And voters are probably right. Whichever party wins control of the Senate, don’t expect much to change next year.

If those in the center don’t speak up and get involved in the political process, there may be no fix for our polarized politics. Until we have a larger group of viable, centrist independent candidates, and campaign rules that give them a chance to be competitive, independent/centrist/swing voters won’t have much of a chance to change the political system.