The first thing I recall learning in grad school that was truly eye-opening was the extent to which individuals' evaluations of the economy, foreign policy, and just about anything else are a function of partisanship. Like most people I had always assumed that with all the proxies available – gas prices, bank rates, one's own paycheck, businesses opening and closing locally – an adult could easily develop a "sense" of how the economy is doing.

Granted, that kind of evaluation isn't a measurement. It's a feeling. And that's fine, because what survey questions ask is how the person *feels* the economy is doing. And there's nothing simpler than announcing your seat-of-pants guess at how things are.

Yet when you look at the research, one of the most consistent findings in public opinion is that even these rough feeling type evaluations are almost purely partisan. Few voters even use the easiest proxies ("Gas prices are going up! Economy bad!"). It really is as simple, for many voters, as my party is in power therefore the economy is great. The other party is in power so no matter how many raises I get the economy is bad and my taxes are going up.

Brian Schaffner posted this neat time series from the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) – my favorite data to "play with" in all of social science – showing partisan evaluations of the economy from 2006 (regrettably, the first year of the CCES) to 2017. The results are unsurprising and demonstrate the basic point I made above.

Note that after a rare period of tri-partisan agreement that things were going to shit in 2007-08, Democrats' sense of the economy rebounded more sharply and rapidly once Obama took over. Now look at 2017.

Another thing political science has a large amount of evidence for is the contention that people who identify as independents often have highly partisan voting habits. They might not say they're Republicans, but they very well might vote exclusively for Republicans. A lot goes into Independent identification; it expresses dissatisfaction with both parties (Many Americans, reasonably, have concluded that they don't like either irrespective of policy positions) and boosts a sense of oneself as an open-minded, free thinking, doesn't take orders type of badass.

In practice, of course, most of these people vote a party line or close to it because that's what people do. They get their ballot, realize they don't know anything about 99% of the names on it, and vote using the easiest available cue.

The CCES data here demonstrate pretty clearly a point I'm often trying to make, which is: Don't "independents" in this data look an awful lot like Republicans? Like, suspiciously so? Almost like Independents are really Republicans who don't want to, for whatever reason, think of or announce themselves as Republicans?

The rise of Independent identification in survey data – and it has risen sharply in recent years – is the worst thing ever to happen to political consultants. They see the word "independent" and believe that it signifies a large mass of undecided voters just waiting to be hit with the right message to sway them. For some independents that may be so; various estimates in research suggest that maybe 1 in 10 voters falls into this category and genuinely does not make up their minds until late in an election. For the majority, though, there is no meaningful independence. It's just a label.

Chuck Schumer famously said in 2016, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” That election helped demonstrate the flaws not only in targeting opposing partisans (hint: moderate Republican is still Republican. It says Republican right in the name) but in assuming that Independents are Independent. Generally they aren't. This is well understood.

So, any election strategy you hear that references independents, swing voters, or any synonym for a big group of persuade-able voters is not a strategy that makes sense. Any winning candidate who credits it fundamentally misunderstands what happened, and losing candidates who appeal to it are likely to repeat their mistakes.

24 thoughts on “INDEPENDENCE”

  • …people who identify as independents often have highly partisan voting habits. They might not say they're Republicans, but they very well might vote exclusively for Republicans. A lot goes into Independent identification; it expresses dissatisfaction with both parties (Many Americans, reasonably, have concluded that they don't like either irrespective of policy positions) and boosts a sense of oneself as an open-minded, free thinking, doesn't take orders type of badass.

    Occasionally I post exactly this observation about "Independent" voters being Republican-lite to some Facebook thread or other when I'm in an attention-seeking mood, because it gay-ron-tees a flood of indignant, self-righteous replies. Juicy!

  • The graph does seem to show “independents” being in between, and, anecdotally, I think I know why: with 1 of 10 being truly “swing voters,” that doesn’t actually leave 9 out of 10 republicans-that-don’t-identify-as-republicans. I was, up until 2016, unaffiliated, but pretty much a D party line voter unless there was a safe protest vote I could make. So my voice in a poll of independent voters would skew the numbers to the traditional democratic side. I was an independent like Bernie was an independent: too far left to be comfortable aligning with the corporatist democrat party (at least in name). I changed my affiliation in order to vote for Bernie in the primary, even though Clinton was the obvious winner by the time our primary happened, then in the general Hillary got my vote.

    But yeah, the point remains that swaying “independent” republicans or “independent” democrats is a fools errand. Republicans went hard right and lost very few of their “independent” base, while democrats ignore the left flank at their peril (low enthusiasm=low turnout). Appealing to some squishy center is how democrats keep losing. Obama made up for his moderate views with a metric crap ton of charisma. He’s an outlier, and Dems should recognize him as such.

  • Similar phenomenon with the idea that there's a large "moderate" middle, when if you actually break down the political positions the "moderates" are often highly partisan on 80% of the issues but hold one or two outliers; the MAGAt that likes his weed, or the feminist who buys into xenophobia about Mexican rapists.

    I have to say that I think – I hope – that the Democratic candidates have stopped being fooled by this "oh, you just have to reach out to these economically anxious independent voters!" dodge. No. These are Republicans, and no more willing to vote for taxation and regulation and every other aspect of modern civilization than a dog will stop licking its balls.

  • Looking at that graph alone, doesn't it appear that the independents' evaluations consistently float a point or so above the *out-party's*? They hewed closer to the Republicans during the Obama years, but during Bush and Trump, they're closer to the Democrats, no?

  • Gene Altshuler says:

    Reaction to economic indicators fall into two broad catagorie's: those that directly impact a persons quality of life and those that are an abstraction. The Fed Reserve interest rate falls under the latter while gas prices the former. One is an intellectual exercise while the other is visceral, and therefore a direct motivator.
    This dichotomy does not apply in the same manner to social and cultural indicators which are almost purely emotionally driven.

  • Independents are obviously Republicans who are ashamed to say so. ( and rightly so!) This is because they know the Republicans are white nationalists and they know that racism is bad. So they deny it. But they certainly are not going to become Democrats with all of the equality and civil-rights claptrap.

  • Silly me (lifelong Democrat, since 1972), thinking that people who considered themselves "Independents" actually were. Disappointing, actually, since I don't think that would be a bad thing at all.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Jesse B:


    "The Libertarian Party has a cute little test that purports to divide American politics into four quadrants. There's the economic dimension (where libertarians ally with conservatives) and the social dimension (where libertarians ally with liberals).

    I think the diagram is seriously misleading, because visually it gives equal importance to both dimensions. And when the rubber hits the road, libertarians almost always go with the economic dimension. "

  • Being "independent" is a kind of holier than though pretense. This is obvious to everyone, except pundits and pollsters, it seems.

  • "Moderate Republicans" my ass. Hey Chuck, YOUR party is now the center right in the US. The Republicans are the FAR right party– they're not going vote for you, EVER.

  • It should be understood that long ago, people did cross party lines. The parties were large, poorly differentiated blobs with some vague economic differences. In particular both parties had racists and non-racists.

    So you might get an economic issue, and vote for one party, and then get a racial issue, and vote for the other party. Elected representatives crossed the lines too ("southern democrats").

    But now the parties and voters are really strongly sorted. All the racists are in one party, etc. You know which tribe you're in and you will not support the other tribe.

    Important though: independents don't have to vote. That's the real choice a lot of them are making. There are reliable Dem voters and reliable Rep voters and Dem independents and Rep independents. The independents would never consider voting for the other tribe but they WOULD consider not voting or voting third-party. For a typical Democratic independent, the Republicans will never get her vote but the Democrats might not either if they are too shitty.

  • While I appreciate your point about the existence of independents…

    This is the first time I've come across the supporting data (that people are partisan, even in the presence of trivially accessible data to confirm or refute that position.) And it's been a point I've been struggling to articulate for a few years, now. (In particular, the election of Obama and Trump created night/day situations for many people I know.) Thank you.

  • I'm an independent.

    I will never vote for a rebuplican until they're actually better at governance than the democrats AND stop the USE of hatred to make policy.

    I will also never throw away my vote by voting for an unelectable candidate or stay away from the polls.

  • As I've been saying for years, independant/unaligned voters are an artifact of the cold war, when there was broad consensus on most aspects of foreign policy and much of domestic. The parties disagreed at the fringes of policy, such as whether or not to raise the minimum wage this year or how much to fund the violence against women act. Those days are gone, and with them the independant.

    The Dem party still clings to this quaint notion because it provides cover for republican-lite candidates and policies favored by big donors. The GOP, however, hunted theirs to extinction in the 90's. Which of these is eating the other's lunch?

  • Notwithstanding the data crunching to which I pay little attention, the party/tribal affiliations we use to slot and categorize ourselves (or others do for us) are mere heuristics for a complex web of interactions. They probably function well enough when people are aggregated, but the likelihood anyone aligns with everything affiliated with a given group is pretty low. For instance, I registered to vote as a Democrat to gain access to the desired primary ballots in my city/state, but I don’t support many Democrat party positions, especially where they, too, are radicalized. I think of myself as an independent voter (centrist, really, which in practice means I’m a nothing) the same way I think of myself as an independent thinker, but I vote strongly along party lines because the dearth of suitable voting options year after year demands the least egregious wrong.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    The party/tribal affiliations we use to slot and categorize ourselves (or others do for us) are mere heuristics for a complex web of interactions. </blockquote

    "He hates the same people I hate — hand me the goddamn ballot" is not a heuristic for a complex web of interactions.

    Yet, somehow, it swung the election.

  • Major Kong: You and me both. Reagan would be considered a squishy liberal RINO in today's GOP. (After all, he supported Medicare and Social Security.)

    The above quote from ol' Chuck Schumer is why I'm not one of his fans. He listens way too much to Wall Street investment firms and guys like Michael Bloomberg before making his political decisions. His heart may be on the right side, but it's not matched by the actions of his head.

  • I'm an Independent. Because there is no Socialist party. I don't vote for shitty Dems–will be voting for a Republican for our county sheriff this round because the Dem is not at all good. However, that is an EXTREMELY rare occurrence for me to vote for a Republican. I refused to state my party affiliation when I registered at age 18 because I thought the two-party system was going to destroy the U.S. Told the registrar as much, too. She was a little shocked to hear an 18-year old to say such a thing. Now I routinely consider changing my registration to Dem so I can vote in the primary and may yet. That is my one chance to try to get a not-shitty Dem to vote for in the general, after all…

  • Well, yeah. The Right has always been really unwilling to admit that it is the Right, and usually likes to pretend that its own political position is really just a neutral default. For example, the leftmost party where I live is named The Left Party while the (until recently) rightmost party is named The Moderate Party, which in turn is allied with the also right-wing Centrist Party. So you should expect that the majority of 'independents' are just Republicans.

  • First "independent" isn't an identity, it's a label, and people can (and do) change their labels. If we look closely at the CCES data, it appears that, during a period of GOP control of the executive branch, "independents" behaved like Democrats, but, when control of the executive branch changed to DEM, then "independents" started behaving like Republicans. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that there are sizable fractions of people in both parties who do not wish to publicly identify as a member of the party out of power.

Comments are closed.