The Independent Voter Mystery

What do they want? Who the hell knows?

It’s one of the great contradictions in American politics: At a time when candidates and political scientists can parse the interests and behaviors of voters with more and more precision, a growing share of the electorate defies categorization.

I’m talking about unaffiliated, or independent, voters. I can’t figure them out. Nobody can. It’s largely a fool’s errand to even try.

The term itself presumes a uniformity that, as far as I can tell, just doesn’t exist. That’s something that came into focus Monday as I listened to a panel of political analysts—Dr. J. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College, Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer, and Erik Spanberg of the Charlotte Business Journaltry to wrap their arms around the independent voter phenomenon on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks.”

All three of these guys are smart, informed, experienced, and honest. Here was the hour-long segment’s most telling exchange.

Guest host Michael Tomsic: “Do we know how important these independent voters will end up being this November?”

Spanberg: “Well, if we did, we could make a lot of money.”

Of course they don’t know. That’s no knock on them. Over the course of the hour, the panel discussed all the potential reasons why the number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina has grown from about 900,000 to 1.8 million in the last 10 years: disgust with the two parties; a strategic desire to vote in either party primary; a wish to be seen as independent; a growing unwillingness among voters, especially younger ones, to be members of anything; and the eroding significance of state and local party structures.

Those are educated guesses. It could be any of those reasons, or some combination, or others, or none of the above. The only way to even try to find out is to conduct something approaching a comprehensive poll, with large sample size, to find out why independent voters reject party affiliation.

But even that assumes voters would be honest with pollsters and themselves about why—not a solid assumption. Many a time I’ve stood in front of a polling place, asked an emerging voter who they voted for and why, and received the stock answer that they leaned neither Democratic nor Republican, that they just “vote for the best candidate.” There’s no way all of them are telling the truth.

In fact, researchers have discovered that most “independent” voters aren’t really independent. Some can be more partisan than those who align themselves with the parties, as The Cook Political Report noted this year:

More than 75 percent of those who label themselves as independent also say they “lean” toward one party or the other. Sixteen percent each to the Democrat and Republican Party. “All told, then, 47% of Americans identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, and 41% identify as Republicans or lean to the Republican Party.” Just 10 percent of Americans can be identified as “pure independents”…

More important, however, is the misconception that these voters are embracing an “independent” status because they want their party to pursue a more moderate agenda, or to  move to the middle instead of catering to the extreme. In fact, there is evidence that they are abandoning their party labels for the exact opposite reason: they see the party as moving too far from its core values.

The piece concludes, “What this means for those of us who work in politics is that we can’t simply use independent as a shortcut. These voters may be better aligned with strong partisans than they are with those who are not as committed to their party label.” This amounts to a throwing up of hands. They don’t know, either.

It’s anathema to political scientists, journalists, pollsters, candidates, operatives, and the rest of those who try to predict accurately which groups of people are likely to vote for which candidates because of which issues. Political science is supposed to be just that.

But the electorate keeps finding ways to confound the experts, even itself. (You could ask Eric Cantor about that.) It’s either heartening or horrifying, or both, to consider that the more we think we know about American democracy, the more we realize how little we know.