Research desk responds: How partisan are 'independent' voters?
By Dylan Matthews
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:
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.
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