May 27, 2012

COMMENTARY: 5 myths about growing bloc of independents

Linda Killian

Forty percent of all registered voters are independents -- the highest figure since Gallup started keeping track half a century ago.

Since 2008, 2.5 million voters have left the two major parties to become independents, which is now a larger group than registered Republicans or Democrats. Let's address some of the misconceptions about this growing and influential bloc of voters.

1. Independent voters aren't really independent.

Perhaps the biggest myth about independents is that they are closet partisans or "leaners" who are independent in name only but regularly vote with one party.

True, about half of independents do fit into this category, but the rest are truly independent; their allegiance swings from election to election. They are persuadable, not polarized partisans. A recent Pew Research Center poll puts the number of swing voters this year at 23 percent -- almost a quarter of the electorate.

In 2006 independents chose Democratic House candidates over Republicans, 57 percent to 39 percent. But in 2008, Democrats won independent voters by only eight points and lost them by 19 points in 2010.

With that kind of track record, it is impossible to say that independent voters are reliably partisan.

2. Independent voters are less engaged.

In hundreds of interviews with independent voters, I found that they tend to be well informed and care about the political process -- even though the two parties have done their best to alienate them through attacks, gridlock and dysfunction.

About two-thirds of them say they are independent because "both parties care more about special interests than about average Americans," according to a Pew survey.

Independent turnout is typically lower than it is among partisan voters. But in more than half of the country, independents are not permitted to vote in primaries, so they have no say in the candidates selected in the general election. It's no surprise, then, that they are usually less satisfied with their candidate choices than partisan voters are.

Independents are more turned off than partisan voters by negative campaign ads and are more likely to say they want more substantive discussions from the candidates and the media. Independents take voting seriously but are less moved by partisan appeals.

They care more about the deficit than Democratic voters do, more about the environment than Republicans do, and less about social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, than do voters from either party.

3. Independent voters want a third party.

I found no unanimity: Some of them think we do need a third- or multi-party system and consistently vote for outsider and third-party candidates, while others accept that this is a two-party nation.

The most successful third-party presidential candidacy in the past 100 years was when Teddy Roosevelt ran for a third term as a candidate with the Bull Moose Party in 1912 and won 27 percent of the vote. Roosevelt came in second to Woodrow Wilson and carried half a dozen states, including California, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Ross Perot, running as a Reform Party candidate in 1992, won 19 percent of the vote.

The third-party organization Americans Elect gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in more than half the states, but did not attract a candidate who could generate much interest and has officially suspended its effort.

Many independent voters think it is more realistic to push for open primaries, and campaign finance and congressional redistricting reform that would open up the process to all voters and candidates, than it would be to try to create a competitive third party.

4. Independents are centrists.

Independent voters are more diverse in age, race, gender and income than their Republican and Democratic counterparts. Most independents are socially liberal, fiscally responsible centrists, but some libertarians and far-left progressives also call themselves independents.

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