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Why political science matters, 'independents' edition

By Dylan Matthews
David Broder thinks "independent voters" are sick of partisanship:

Today, most opinion polls agree that fewer than 20 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing. Despite passage of a health-reform bill that will surely win a place in the history books along with economic stimulus and education aid measures that are large by any measurement, the prestige of the legislative branch has sunk to a historic low.

Why the failing grades? Part of it stems from the broad public reaction to the spectacle the lawmakers have made of themselves these past 15 months. ...

The partisanship on both sides was a turnoff to independents. They were the people who had taken Obama seriously when he said he wanted to move Washington beyond the recriminations of the George W. Bush years. Regardless of their views on health care -- or the economy or education or anything else -- they are turned off by the inability of both parties to overcome their parochial concerns and agree on steps to curb the joblessness and debt that are consuming the country.

This is actually a great illustration of the uses of political science for political journalists. Despite Broder's protestations to the contrary, most independents are, in practice, partisans. Indeed, the influential "The Myth of the Independent Voter" estimates that, at most, 10 percent of voters are "pure independents" without a partisan leaning. Independents who lean one way or another don't act much differently from partisans, particularly those who identify as "weak Democrats" or "weak Republicans". Obviously, 10 percent of the country isn't nothing, and in a close election could be decisive. But better turnout among one's base could also be decisive, and pandering to the center could lead them to stay home. While political science is sometimes caricatured as thinking the actual activities of politics don't matter, many political scientists think that get-out-the-vote campaigns can work, and so knowing how many of a given type of voter are out there matters for campaigns. And the best information we have on voters' partisan stripes doesn't agitate for a Broderist strategy.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  April 1, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
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