Independents are growing as a portion of the electorate. They will decide the coming presidential election. Yet they wield little influence in the primaries and processes that determine candidates and platforms. Dismayed with the options presented to them, they strengthen conviction in their independence, thereby weakening their say upon candidates and platforms even further. Their rising disaffection brings increasing disenfranchisement.
What are the independents seeking? And how might they escape their plight?
Independents: A Typology
Independents may be described as falling into four categories. Each category encompasses a set of shared beliefs; a tendency toward similar voting behavior. The categories are:
1. Apathetic Independents: These individuals are uninterested in politics and unmotivated to vote for reasons of marginalization and pessimism. They may on occasion be rallied into electoral participation, and when they participate they may display a strong disposition to one party over another. But they do not as a group lean strongly to one party or the other. And they generally abstain from electoral participation, lacking the convictions to motivate them to register and vote. These apathetic independents may represent 20 percent of the population.
(Note: This article does not strive for precision in the distribution of the electorate. It does share impressions gained from a scan of articles and surveys. But the focus is on beliefs and behaviors, not proportions and distributions.)
2. Righteous Independents: These voters are proudly unaffiliated. They righteously describe themselves as seeking and supporting the “best” and “most altruistic” and “least political” candidates. Their philosophy is ahistorical and apolitical. It is without foundation in ideas or even interests. It leaves them as electoral wildcards who lack any sustained influence on politics and policy. These voters appear to be 10 to 15 percent of the electorate.
3. Partisan Independents: These voters frequently describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. They reject the excesses of Progressives as much as the narrowness of the Tea Party. Whether they realize it or not, the partisan independents share a belief in protecting individual choice and promoting individual freedom; a skepticism of governmental programs and centralized power. Whether lapsed or latent in their independent alignment, they do lean Democratic or Republican. The pundits and pollsters frequently and unhelpfully refer to them as moderates. They appear to be about 30 percent of the electorate.
4. Itinerant Partisans: These voters, who currently identify as Republican, feel a strong sense of economic vulnerability and social estrangement. They are typically white with modest education. Although angry with the politicians in Washington whom they believe to have betrayed them, and vigilant against the government abridging certain of their rights, they support social-insurance programs and economic-protection policies for working-class Americans. They are neither classically nor consistently conservative.
Per a recent piece in the National Journal, these voters may be described as radical populists, stricken with economic angst, lacking a coherent political philosophy, and possessing no firm political allegiance (as evidenced through the years by their support of George Wallace, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and now Donald Trump). Although these voters exhibit strong faith in god, they demonstrate only weak allegiance to party.
In both their anti-establishment anger and their economic-leveling policies, the itinerant partisans are surprisingly close kindred to the Progressives who form the core of Bernie Sanders’ support. They might be 20 percent of the electorate, and they form the core of the support for Donald Trump.
Independents: Their Importance in the General Election
Composing such a large portion of the electorate, as indicated in the featured chart from the Pew Research Center, the independents will decide the next president in November. The question therefore is not whether they will be decisive. It is how.
In 2012, for example, the independents appear to have delivered victory to Barack Obama in two ways:
- High turnout from historically apathetic independents who tend to vote Democratic when they do turn out, specifically the African American, Latin, and youth communities; and
- Disproportionate support from female independents.
In 2016 the impact of the independents, while still to be decisive, will surely be different. In part, this is because the so-called Obama coalition does not (yet) have a unifying and energizing leader. In part, it is because the presidential candidates in both parties are (so far) failing to speak to the independents.
Independents: Their Impotence in the Primaries
To this point in the 2016 cycle, the degree to which the presidential candidates are shunning the partisan independents (who are the focus of this piece due to their possession of a coherent philosophy) is remarkable.
As the following graphic from a voter guide in the The Washington Post illustrates, there has been but one candidate whose policies put him within a box that might be drawn to represent the socially tolerant and fiscally disciplined policies endorsed by partisan independents. And that candidate, Democrat Jim Webb, dropped out in October because in his own words, “my views on many issues are not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party.” Republican George Pataki, another candidate who is on the fringe of the box below, has also dropped out.
Why the scant attention to the issues of the partisan independents, despite them being about a third of the electorate; despite them being the decisive bloc in the general election?
The relatively obvious explanation is that as these voters have removed themselves from active participation in the two parties and become partisan independents, they have diminished their importance to the candidates seeking nomination from the parties. They have effectively ceded the nomination contest to the very activists who compelled them to reduce their participation in the established parties to begin with.
The process has been gradual, and the effect varies across states due to inconsistent rules for participation in primaries. But as illustrated in the above graphic, the incontrovertible result at the national level for this election cycle has been utter disregard by the presidential candidates for the positions favored by the partisan independents.
That said, there is another reason for the on-going disenfranchisement of the partisan independents: They have historically diluted their political strength by splitting their allegiance across the Democratic and Republican parties. Those with relatively strong devotion to social justice have typically gone Democratic; those with relatively strong desire for fiscal discipline have typically gone Republican. The differences amongst these groups are genuine. But the differences are relatively modest and have obscured that which these groups share: Skepticism of governmental competence; wariness of centralized power.
The question in 2016 is whether these two camps, dismayed with and shunned by the established parties, will find common cause on the basis of a consistent commitment to the protection and promotion of the individual. Or whether they will remain merely decisive, as in 2012, in the choice between the candidates that the two parties make available for the November election.
Independents: Their Obligations unto Themselves
Whatsoever transpires in the coming election, those who are partisan independents must recognize their own role in their diminishing influence. They have disengaged from the parties, exaggerated their differences, and diluted their political power. To reverse the trend of decreasing relevance, they must:
- Message and Attitude. Abandon the pusillanimous motto of being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Instead, declare core beliefs, specifically the creation of a better and stronger community via the protection and promotion of individual choice and action. Speak and act on those beliefs. Deny being a moderate. Pick a side. (This site strives to contribute to this cause.)
- Engagement. Contribute financially to candidates and causes of like mind, even if only in small amounts. Go to meetings. Perhaps even stand for office. Recognize that to participate only in the general election is to forego opportunity to influence the candidates on the ballot and the platforms for which they stand.
- Competition. Provide support for measures that increase competition amongst candidates for office, for example the implementation of term limits, prohibitions against gerrymandering, and perhaps campaign finance reform (though the latter has proven ineffective to date). Such measures are not by themselves an antidote to political sclerosis. But they would inject a dose of vitality.
- Readiness. Prepare for a possible shift, whether from a candidate emerging or from a party arising. The Republican party being the historic home of limited government and gradual change, it seems the more likely source of a compelling candidate. Being also the current home of political ferment, the GOP seems as well to be the most likely catalyst to radical party realignment, howsoever improbable that prospect may actually be. The point is that when the opportunity to align on a candidate or platform materializes, the partisan independents must respond.
The foregoing call to action is in large part an admonition to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship. But it is also something more. It is a call for partisan independents to recognize and leverage their fundamentally common beliefs so as to recapture influence in our politics.
To do otherwise is to wallow in disaffection. And to accept disenfranchisement. For about a third of the electorate.
References and Additional Reading
- The Return of the Middle American Radical: An “intellectual history of Trump supporters” as appeared in the National Journal.
- Democratic, Republican Identification Near Historical Lows: An analysis of trends from Gallup.
- Party Affiliation (Gallup): Numbers from Gallup on party identification.
- Party Affiliation (Pew): Analysis from the Pew Research Center on trends in party affiliation since the 1940s.
- Voter Guide: An interactive guide by Societly for the Washington Post that “asks for your stance on the issues and then matches you up with candidates whose views align with yours.”