Independent voters are the largest and fastest-growing voting bloc; they hold the balance of power and will likely determine the winner of this election. But they’ve become the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: They get no respect.
Washington’s professional partisans go to extraordinary lengths to deny they exist, dismissing them as closest partisans. But it’s not an accident that independent voters have grown over the past two decades while the two parties have flat-lined or declined, precisely at the same time the two parties have become more ideologically polarized. The rise of independent voters represents the market failure of our two-party system.
The raging conservative populism of Donald Trump and the unreconstructed liberal populism of Bernie Sanders have captured all the disaffected-voter attention this year. And so independent voters have been comparatively ignored.
But independent voters drive the waves that result in shifting control of Congress, and they have backed the winner in all but two presidential elections since 1980, according to election data at the Roper Center. The exceptions are 2004, when John Kerry won them by 2 percentage points, and 2012, when Mitt Romney won them by 5.
The Romney independent win reflected the overall shift of the independent-voter cohort to the right in the wake of 2010’s Tea Party movement. Romney’s gains with independents—which made up 29 percent of overall voters that year—were offset by President Obama winning moderates by 15 percentage points.
This split represented a major shift. Generally, independent voters have overlapped with moderates and tracked national attitudes on issues more consistently than Democrats or Republicans. But independents are too big a group to be monolithic. In aggregate, they tend to be closer to Republicans on economic issues and Democrats on social issues. They are also the least religious voter cohort—which helps explain why they have strong overlap with the more centrist-minded libertarians. Not surprisingly, independents form the core of support for the Gary Johnson-Bill Weld Libertarian ticket.
But which way are independents swinging between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
For much of the election, Trump had been winning independent voters by wide margins over Clinton. In July, for example, the CNN/ORC poll had Trump winning independents, 46 percent to 28 percent among those surveyed. And independent voters have never been the most dependable base of Clinton’s support, hovering around 45 percent when she first ran for president in 2008, then climbing above 60 percent when she was secretary of State and after she left the administration, before descending back to the low 40s when she ran this time. Independents who were able to vote in the Democratic primaries tended to back Sanders.
But something interesting began to happen after Trump’s first presidential debate. The Quinnipiac poll found Clinton rocketing to a national lead courtesy of a major shift among independent voters, who flipped from 42 percent for Trump in September to 46 percent for Clinton. The PRRI/Atlantic poll found a similar flip after the first debate, with an 8 percentage-point independent swing toward Clinton.
This shift was confirmed by a Nov. 2 Bloomberg poll that showed Clinton beating Trump among independent voters by a tighter 4-point margin. Crucially, independent voters view Clinton as much closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party than Trump, 61 percent to 13 percent. Trump’s erratic behavior and extreme policies have alienated independent voters.
But Trump retains a narrow 2 percentage-point edge among independents in crucial swing states like Florida, where registered independents make up a quarter of the electorate. According to a recent CNN/ORC poll (PDF) of Florida voters, Clinton is cleaning up among Sunshine State moderates, 57 to 31 percent, however.
The split between independents and moderates that began in 2010 persists. But Trump’s extremism and his hijacking of the GOP has hurt Republicans’ edge with independents since 2010.
To a large extent, political identification has become a negative association in recent years. Even partisans are increasingly driven by negative obsessions for the other party rather than passion for their own. This election is a prime example of that dynamic, and independents’ general-election swing reflects a reaction against the candidate they deem more extreme.
The declarations of independence will increase as long as the parties continue to play to their base at the expense of reaching out to the center. The possibility of a centrist independent candidate in Congress from upstate New York is a sign of growing strength of independents and their increasing appetite for candidates they can call their own.
Independent voters are real, and as Stanford’s Morris Fiorina has again shown in a definitive new study (PDF), they are the swing voters who provide the crucial margin in majority coalitions, from congressional waves to presidential elections. No candidate, no party, and no president can afford to ignore them.