More and more Americans identify as being political independents these days, but they still tend to vote like old-fashioned partisans.
A few days ago over at The Washington Post’s The Fix blog Phillip Bump made a great observation about the nature of Americans that identify as political independents. He was writing about political scientist John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s recent book on the 2012 election “The Gamble” and one of the Sides and Vavreck’s conclusions really jumped out at Bump, “Over the course of the past few decades, partisans have been increasingly unlikely to vote against their party.”
Or as Sides at and Vavreck put it in their book:
“…[Independent leaning voters] look much more like true partisans in terms of their voting behavior than they do pure independents. For example, in 2008, “pure independents” who reported voting in the presidential election split 51%–41% for Obama, with the remainder voting for another candidate. The vast majority of Democrats (90%) voted for Obama, and so did 90% of independents who leaned Democratic. Similarly, the vast majority (92%) of Republicans voted for John McCain, as did 78% of independents who leaned Republican.
In other words more and more people may call themselves “independent” in surveys these days, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily voting like true independents and swinging back and forth between political parties. If anything American voters are becoming more loyal to one particular political party over the course of elections cycles.
Or as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote recently:
“I keep using the same rule of thumb: voters are one third Democrats, one third Republicans, one third “independents,” and the latter are one third Democrats, one third Republicans, and one third true independents. Yes, there are small fluctuations over time, but that pretty much describes the last 30-plus years.”
What does this mean for the current state of American politics? Well for one thing it means that appeals to the “radical center” or other calls for options other than Democrats or Republicans in presidential races are really misguided. After all if most independent voters really are partisans in their voting behavior, then modern third party runs for the presidency really are a giant waste of time and money. Moreover these findings are good evidence that the key to wining elections in the 21st Century isn’t to reach out to the middle as so many pundits like Tom Friedman keep telling us. Instead if parties want to win they should focus on finding ways to mobilize their partisan supporters to maximum effect, after all their just really aren’t a lot independent votes up for grabs anyway.
In other words expect a grueling and negative campaign for the presidency next year. Being nice and talking about bipartisanship just won’t cut it when it comes to taking and holding the White House in 2016.
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