Surge of 'independent voter' more myth than reality
By Dr. Michael Bitzer
For the Salisbury Post
Whenever a campaign season rolls around, some electoral myths get replayed, and this year is no exception. The most notable myth so far is the one that can be easily dismissed, but we love to hear it over and over again.
With recent columns such as Ann McFeattersâ€™ â€śWatch the Rise of Independent Votersâ€ť (Aug. 12 Post), the increased influence and importance of the independent voter is kind of like the latest zombie movie, designed to scare candidates into appealing to the moderate middle. I know, â€śGallup says that 40 percent of all Americans now identify as independents? How can Gallup be wrong?â€ť
And yes, with Gallup putting out headlines as â€śRecord-high 40 percent of Americans identify as independents in â€™11,â€ť how can one not believe that the indies are taking over the electoral landscape? Even the Pew Research Center finds that over one-third of Americans claim â€śindependentâ€ť status.
In fact, if you go back to 2008 (and even further), youâ€™ll see a nice purple line (for independents) growing in strength against the Democratic blue and Republican red in partisan identification.
The problem is â€” these independents arenâ€™t as â€śindependentâ€ť as one would like to think. In fact, Gallup shows that, by just asking independents a follow-up question of â€śdo you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?â€ť â€” they divided pretty much between the two parties.
So, a little under 10 percent of the electorate really considers themselves a true â€śindependentâ€ť â€” and in fact, we can see this phenomenon occur in voting patterns as well.
Take 2008 for example: when asked in the first question, â€śno matter how you voted today, do you consider yourself a Democratic, Republican, or independent,â€ť we see a distinct breakdown among party lines, with independents appearing to be split down the middle.
But if you sort the voters by combining party identification with ideological identification â€” so that you get a spectrum from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican â€” we see only moderate independents (those that appear to be truly in the middle) among the most evenly divided in presidential voting in 2008.
Even here in North Carolina, moderate independents are the most competitive in terms of voting behavior between Obama and McCain in 2008. Nearly all the other classifications in the Tar Heel state had two-thirds or more on one partisan side or the other.
And with the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project reporting that only 5 percent of surveyed voters saying they were undecided, the signs for this fall point to a â€śparty-baseâ€ť election, where turnout among identified partisans will be the critical factor.
So yes, there are such mythical creatures as â€śindependent votersâ€ťâ€”but many of them are more like partisan voters than most of us think, and in the end, they may not be as critical as the number of partisans whom the campaigns are relying upon.
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Dr. Michael Bitzer is a professor of political science and history at Catawba College.