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Do Independent Voters Matter?

The term “independent voter” suggests someone who is open-minded. We imagine that the independent voter goes into each election without preconceived ideas about which party to vote for, but instead considers the merits of each candidate with every new election. The image of the free-thinking independent voter may be why so many people like to call themselves independents. But the truth is that few voters actually are independent—most are just Republicans or Democrats who describe themselves that way.

That shouldn’t be surprising. The Republican and Democratic parties’ positions are so starkly different that the choice between them should be clear to most prospective voters. And politicians running for national office have relatively little freedom to be meaningfully independent from their party’s agenda. Anyone who pays attention to American politics is likely to have a fairly clear idea what politicians stand for on the basis of their party affiliation alone.

In fact, political scientists have found over and over again that most American independents are independent in name only. As Alan Abramowitz explains, most self-described independents are “closet partisans” who think and act just like people who describe themselves as Republicans or Democrats. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about independents as a group, because the independents who lean Republican and the independents who lean Democratic have more in common with partisans of each party than they do with each other.

That’s why Ruy Texeira argues that Obama shouldn’t waste his efforts trying to court independent voters. Pew data suggests that less than a third of people who describe themselves as independents—or about 13-14% of the electorate—are actually independent. Since those genuinely independent voters are less engaged in politics and are less likely to vote, they typically make up less than 10% of actual voters. While that still could make the difference in a close election, Abramowitz points out that in the last three closely-contested presidential elections, the candidate that won the independent vote ultimately lost the popular vote. Most recently, in 2004, John Kerry won independents, but lost the election. It's not that independents don't matter at all. But in close elections turnout of the party base may be more important than the independent vote.

Photo credit: Pete Souza

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