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Research desk responds: How partisan are 'independent' voters?

By Dylan Matthews

quarkpt asks:

Is there really such a thing as a "swing voter?" I can see that there are swing states, where the population is roughly balanced between voters who support each of the 2 major parties; but are there really voters who go back and forth between the parties, or is is all a matter of which party turns out its voters more effectively?

Research on this question suggests that there are, in fact, swing voters, but that they are far fewer than they're made out to be. The defining work on this subject is Bruce Keith et. al.'s "The Myth of the Independent Voter," published in 1992, which broke down independent voters into three categories: independents who lean Democratic, independents who lean Republican, and pure independents. The "leaners" voted for Republican and Democratic candidates with about the same frequency that self-identified Republicans and Democrats did. Only pure independents were unpredictable, and amounted to just under 10 percent of the electorate. These were the true swing voters, but there were not that many of them.

The book's findings have held up since its publication. In the 2008 election, "pure independents" made up only 7 percent of the electorate, and leaners still voted overwhelmingly for the candidates of the party they identified as leaning toward. This behavior holds up even between elections, in things like presidential approval polls. George Washington University's John Sides analyzed ABC/Washington Post presidential approval polls from 2009 and broke them down based on whether respondents were pure independents, leaners or partisans:

obama approval and pid-thumb.png

Democratic leaners are barely distinguishable from Democrats, Republican leaners are barely distinguishable from Republicans, and pure independents -- representing all of 7 percent of the electorate -- were the only group to go from approving to disapproving of Obama.

As for quarkpt's question of what this means for turnout, there is research suggesting that certain Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns can be quite effective. Political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber found that phonebanking and door-to-door canvassing have a statistically significant effect on voter turnout. They're expensive -- $29 and $38 per vote, respectively -- but they can work. Campaigns, then, can choose whether to spend more resources turning out their base in this way, or to try to gain the support of the few pure independent voters who could be swayed by more centrist policies. Of course, many do both.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 19, 2010; 2:12 PM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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Thanks for answering my question!

Posted by: quarkpt | July 19, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps Minnesota has more independent voters than the nation as a whole. A quick review of 2008 v 2006 returns seems to show that both on a specific ballot and from one year to the next, voters here are ticket-splitters.

US President; Dem: 1,573,354 v Repub: 1,275,409
US Senate; Dem: 1,212,629 v Repub: 1,212,317 v IP: 437,505

MN Gov; Dem: 1,007,460 v Repub: 1,028,568 v IP: 141,735
US Senate: Dem: 1,278,849 v Repub: 835,653 v IP: 71,194

The largest margin is for the IP vote in the 2006 vs 2008 senate races, where Barkley managed to outperform Fitzgerald 6:1 in raw votes. Again in raw votes, Coleman topped Kennedy's performance by nearly 50%. Klobuchar, meanwhile, only beat Franken by 60,000 votes, but in percentage terms she significantly outperformed him. In 2006, the IP Gubernatorial candidate collected twice as many votes as the IP candidate for the Senate. Pawlenty found nearly 200,000 votes that Kennedy didn't get, while Hatch lost 270,000 Klobuchar voters - in the Gov race, the Repub squeaked out a small plurality, while the Dem in the Senate race won a significant majority.

Similarly in 2008, Obama found over 360,000 voters that didn't vote for Franken and McCain collected nearly a quarter million more than Coleman.

Independent voters aren't a myth in Minnesota.

Posted by: bsimon1 | July 19, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Well, the obvious next question is which group is deciding elections. Obviously, 7% is enough in most presidential elections to, ahem, swing the election for one candidate or another. So for GOTV efforts to be worthwhile you need to be able to activate more votes than you could win by going after the true independents.

I guess it also matters if the true independents were as likely to actually follow through with voting as the party identified folks or independent leaners you would activate with your GOTV.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Also, I realize that my Research Desk question wasn't very well suited to Dylan finding a concrete answer, but I would seriously like someone to look into it a bit. I'm pretty convinced that there must be something I'm overlooking that makes the plan impractical, but I can't for the life of me think of what it is, other than it might not result in enough reduction in carbon emissions to meet whatever goals people have set for that sort of thing. Even then it seems like it'd be a good start. If, however, it *is* a decent idea, I'd like to know whether anyone in Washington has talked about it. I find it very hard to believe that, clever though he is, Kevin Willis happened upon a climate change proposal that nobody thought of before.

Posted by: MosBen | July 19, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse


This Broder-Brooks-Dobbsian idea that "the independents are the majority out there, getting angry, and ready to rise up and take over!" is one of my biggest pet peeves. It's totally unsupported by the evidence. There also is quite a bit of evidence that these "pure independents" are particularly disengaged from politics (as compared to partisans) and don't tune in until commercials start airing all over their TV in the fall.

Listen -- it would be good for the country if there were tens of millions of thoughtful, sophisticated, motivated TRUE independents out there, providing a check on the two parties in Washington. However, there aren't.

Anybody remember "Unity '08"?

It's also worth mentioning that Democratic-leaning independents and Republican-leaning independents ARE NOT necessarily any more moderate than people who identify themselves as partisans. Think about it -- some of those people may consider themselves independent because they are more moderate than the party they are closest to, but some may consider themselves independent because they are more EXTREME than the party they are closest to. Ralph Nader supporters in 2000 would probably consider themselves "Democratic-leaning independents" if pushed, just as tea party activists would probably consider themselves "Republican-leaning independents" if pushed.

We throw these terms and categories around without even thinking about what they mean.

Posted by: vvf2 | July 19, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't know about the GOP, but in my experience a good number of "independent-lean Dem" folks are to the LEFT of the Dem Party. They aren't centrists and will never vote GOP. Occasionally Green or some other 3rd party, but vastly more often Dem.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 19, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

This cries out for an update for 2009/2010. Specifically, what percentage of Republicans have in the last 2 years (post the disastrous Bush period and rise of the Tea Party) changed their self-description to Independent, even though their voting patterns won't change one iota. And to what degree does this account for the overall shift of Independents towards Republican-leaning poll responses?

Posted by: michaelh81 | July 19, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Just anecdotally, I know a fair number of people who identify as independents because they are to the left of the Democratic party. They vote consistently Democratic, because that's the choice on the ballot, but I wouldn't say they were "lean Democratic" so much as "embarrassed to be associated with a anyone as comparatively right wing as the Democratic party." I wonder what the break down is among the independent-identifying leaners of those who lean from the center out, or the outside in.

Posted by: camipco | July 19, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

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