The myth of the "independent" voter, and the cynical stupidity of the Third Way
by David Atkins
The Third Way has a new report out with some bad news for Democrats. It would appear that a large number of Democrats in swing states have chosen to re-register as independents. To be fair, a significant number of Republicans are also doing so, but in far fewer numbers than are Democrats. Of course, the Third Way in typical mewling form attributes the registration decline to disgust with hyper-partisanship and "polarization." From the report:
Democrats’ path to victory just got harder. Fed up with the traditional two-party system and overwhelming polarization, voters are increasingly abandoning the parties. Since 2008, in all eight battleground states for which voter registration information is available, Democratic registration has declined relative to both Republicans and Independents. In 7 of those 8 states, Independents’ share of the electorate has increased relative to both Democrats and Republicans. The number of Independents registered to vote in those states increased by 254,310, as Democratic registration fell by 825,708 and Republican registrations dropped 378,835. In 2012, Independents are likely to turn out in their largest numbers in 35 years, and President Obama will need those Independent votes even more than he did in 2008, if he hopes to be re-elected.
To be sure, these numbers should be cause for alarm among Democrats. But not for the reasons Third Way proclaims. The sleight of hand Third Way is perpetrating here is the assumption that Democrats (and Republicans as well) are re-registering as Independents because they feel their party is too ideologically extreme.
Yet nowhere in the report is that assertion ever actually proven. Like so much else in the Village bubble, it is simply assumed, a fallacy used to cow elected progressives into submission when a dispassionate study of the facts would suggest precisely the opposite. Alan Abramovitz had a seminal article about this in 2009:
At first glance, the evidence from the 2008 NES appears to show that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. About 40 percent of the respondents identified themselves as independents, which was considerably more than the 34 percent who identified with the Democratic Party or the 26 percent who identified with the Republican Party. However, when these independent identifiers were asked a follow-up question, nearly three-fourths of them indicated that they usually felt closer to one of the two major parties. Only 11 percent of the respondents were “pure independents” with no party preference. And because these pure independents turned out at a much lower rate than either regular or independent partisans, that number shrank down to 7 percent among those who actually voted.
Not only did the large majority of independent identifiers readily acknowledge having a party preference, but the evidence displayed in Table 2 from the 2008 NES shows that independent partisans behaved almost identically to regular partisans when it came to choosing candidates for President, House of Representatives, and Senate: independent Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates and independent Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates...
On social issues, independent Democrats were sometimes even more liberal than regular Democrat. For example, 59 percent of independent Democrats supported same-sex marriage compared with 48 percent of regular Democrats, and 63 percent of independent Democrats took the most pro-choice position on the issue of abortion compared with 53 percent of regular Democrats.
Partisanship continues to exert a powerful influence on public opinion in the post-election period. A CNN poll in late April found that 90 percent of independent Democrats and 92 percent of regular Democrats approved of President Obama’s performance while 71 percent of independent Republicans and 70 percent of regular Republicans disapproved.
The large majority of independent identifiers lean toward one of the two major parties and these independent partisans are virtually indistinguishable from regular partisans in political outlook or behavior. It therefore makes no sense to view independents as a homogenous bloc of floating voters. Independents are sharply divided along party lines just like the rest of the American electorate.
It's also worth pointing out that the oft-quoted idea that independents "abandoned Democrats" in the 2010 election cycle is predicated on a fallacy of voter switching, rather than weak voter turnout.
In 2008, Obama won independents by 8%. And yes, "independents" as a bloc voted overwhelmingly Republican in 2010. But of the independents who voted in 2010, 51% of them had voted for McCain, while only 42% of them had voted for Obama. In other words, it wasn't so much that Obama independents switched to vote conservative (though a few clearly did.) It was, rather, that many of the independents who had voted for Obama in 2008 simply stayed home in 2010. Independents didn't "switch." Rather, a more conservative breed of independent showed up at the polls in 2010.
And it's a very fair bet that a large percentage--perhaps even a majority--of the independents who stayed home did so because they felt the President had not been progressive enough. Greg Sargent explains:
As the intraparty Dem war over the meaning of the midterms continues, centrist Democrats have been making the case that the big swing of independents for Republicans proves Dems need to move to the middle to recapture this key demographic.
Now a leading liberal group is set to push back on that argument with a counter-intuitive case of its own: Independents are not a monolith, and what really happened is that indys who backed Obama in 2008 stayed home, because they were unsatisfied with Obama's half-baked reform agenda, while McCain-supporting indys turned out in big numbers.
The group is set to release new polling from the respected Dem firm Public Policy Polling that is meant to buttress this case. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee commissioned the poll and sent some results my way.
The key finding: PPP asked independents who did vote in 2010 who they had supported in 2008. The results: Fifty one percent of independents who voted this time supported McCain last time, versus only 42 percent who backed Obama last time. In 2008, Obama won indies by eight percent.
That means the complexion of indies who turned out this time is far different from last time around, argues Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. His case: Dem-leaning indys stayed home this time while GOP-leaning ones came out -- proof, he insists, that the Dems' primary problem is they failed to inspire indys who are inclined to support them.
"The dumbest thing Democrats could do right now is listen to those like Third Way who urge Democrats to repeat their mistake by caving to Republicans and corporations instead of fighting boldly for popular progressive reforms and reminding Americans why they were inspired in 2008," Green says.
Adam Green is right.
Democrats are shedding registered voters, to be sure. But as anyone actually doing voter registration knows, that has more to do with the progressive base giving up on a Party that has demonstrably shifted too far to the right, than with a delusional handful of Fox News Democrats who think that President Obama is some sort of socialist partisan.
The Third way crew are suspect in their motives, wrong on the facts and dead wrong on their political instincts. They make grandiose assumptions about political narratives that they're either too politically tone-deaf to understand, or too cynical to acknowledge understanding. The only people more stupid and/or cynical than the Third Way, are the people who listen to them.
If the Third Way gets its way (more than they already are, that is), Democrats will lose even more voters. Here's hoping no one important is foolish enough to give them any credibility.