Thursday, April 24, 2008

You’re going to hear a lot about independent voters this election season. They will no doubt tip the balance in the November presidential contest, determining the next occupant of the White House. But who are these Americans? What share of the electorate do they represent? And what drives their vote choice? A closer look at this important electoral bloc reveals some startling facts and underscores why “independent” voters are among the most unpredictable when it comes to political forecasting.

I’ve been writing for the past couple of weeks about the changing nature of the American electorate. Winning in 2008 requires a different strategy for both parties compared to other recent national campaigns. Leading up to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, political analysts noticed a curious and significant trend. The number of Americans identifying with and voting for both political parties had swelled over the previous decade. This meant the number of “persuadable” voters was shrinking. So, instead of consciously moving to the middle of the ideological spectrum as November neared, winning elections in this environment — more so than in the past — meant candidates needed to identify and mobilize the party faithful. This new hyper-partisan atmosphere helped coin phrases like “red” and “blue” states.

2004 was the crest of this rising wave of partisanship in America. It was what political operatives call a “base election.” Both sides coaxed their respective partisans with massive get-out-the-vote operations. Republicans and Democrats stormed the ballot boxes like a political Normandy, each party boosting turnout from its own constituencies compared to the previous presidential elections. For example, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reports that President Bush received 62,028,719 votes in 2004 — representing the most votes a presidential candidate received since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory. And while Sen. John Kerry lost the presidential race, he too turned out massive numbers of his own partisans, helping him garner more votes than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

But the electoral tectonic plates have shifted in the past four years. Two weeks ago I noted that American voters in 2008 look a lot like they did in the late 1970s. The number identifying as Republicans has dipped — just like the decline in Republican identification post-Watergate and prior to the Gerald Ford loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Based on recent polling, the number of “independents” as a share of the electorate has grown since 2004. Similarly, during the mid-to-late 1970s, the percentage of independents moved up, reaching its highest point in the past 50 years.

What we know about these voters, though, might surprise you. First, about 25 percent of the electorate are true independents (not “leaning” toward one party or the other). That percent has remained relatively steady for about the last 50 years. Next, the popular myth that independents are the same as “moderates” is not true. When asked about their political ideology, given a choice between liberal, moderate, conservative or don’t know, 40 percent say they “don’t know.” About 15 percent say liberal, another 15 percent conservative and 30 percent moderate. So, about seven out of 10 independents don’t consider themselves moderates. Independents also vote at significantly lower rates than Republicans or Democrats. According to the American National Election Studies, conducted since 1952, 84 percent of Republicans report voting in presidential elections, compared to 76 percent of Democrats and just 48 percent of independents. And when they do vote, they pick a candidate much later. About one-third report deciding within the last two weeks of the election, a much higher percentage than among Republicans or Democrats.

So, how do you attract a voting bloc where nearly half do not know if they are liberal or conservative, more than half might stay home, and many decide very late in the campaign? Considering “independents” a monolith is the biggest mistake a campaign can make. Some “independents” support extreme liberals like Ralph Nader; others flock to conservative, libertarian choices like Ron Paul.

It’s doubtful Nader voters march in Ron Paul’s revolution. Yet they both show up in surveys as “independents;” and media pundits often analyze them as a homogenized whole. Successful campaigns this fall will avoid this pitfall, target the persuadable segment of independents and work hard to mobilize them on Election Day — an exercise easier said than done with these diverse and unpredictable voters.

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