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Independents Are Not a “Confused Horde”

- April 27, 2011

bq. But what if millions of independents are really just a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?

This question is “posed”:http://www.tnr.com/article/not-even-past/87379/republican-democrats-independents-dewey-lippmann by “Michael Kazin”:http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/mk8/. His concern is based on some results from a new “Democracy Corps poll”:http://www.democracycorps.com/strategy/2011/04/paul-ryan-to-seniors-drop-dead/, which he summarizes:

bq. …this poll performed the valuable service of reading out each party’s talking points about the current budget debate and then asking respondents which ones they found convincing…Since avowed Republicans and Democrats line up consistently behind whichever arguments come from their side, it is the independents who are responsible for the contradictory results: Almost 50 percent agreed first with the GOP positions, and then, with those of the other party. As the pollsters observed, “[I]ndependents … move in response to the messages and attacks tested in this survey.”

He then discusses the “debate”:http://legacy.oise.utoronto.ca/research/edu20/moments/1922lippdew.html?cms_page=edu20/moments/1922lippdew.html between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey and then concludes:

bq. Indeed, the Democracy Corps poll reveals that our next holders of state power might end up being chosen by a minority that seems to stands for very little–or, perhaps, for nothing at all.

Kazin misses two important points about independents. First, like many others, he overestimates the proportion of the population that is truly independent, writing “After all, loyal Democrats and Republicans still compose at least two-thirds of the electorate.” It would be more correct to say that loyal partisans compose about 90% of the electorate. See “here”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/12/three_myths_about_political_in.html.

Second, he seems to imply that independents choose political leaders for no good reason or even no reason at all, simply because majorities agree with the claims of both parties. Of course, without delving below simple percentages — 50% of independents said “X,” 50% of independents said “Not X” — we can’t really know how many specific independents took contradictory positions. I’ve looked in the poll results and don’t see that information.

But more importantly, independents actually vote in predictable ways. Much more than partisans, they vote for the party advantaged by two fundamental factors: the economy and war. I’ve “noted a similar point before”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/11/do_democrats_understand_politi.html. Let’s consider the relationship between economic growth and war and the presidential vote for only the 10% or so of the population that is truly independent. In particular, I rely on a measure from “Doug Hibbs”:http://douglas-hibbs.com/Election2008/2008Election-MainPage.htm that combines income growth and military fatalities in war, and American National Election Studies “data”:http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/2ndtable/t9a_1_1.htm on presidential voting by party.

There is a powerful relationship here. In fact, the combination of income growth and casualties explains 70% of the variation in the vote of pure independents. (Nerdy aside: The t-statistic for the regression line is 5.8.)

Now, it’s entirely possible to argue that voting based on the economy and war isn’t entirely rational. But it’s a far cry from the world Kazin imagines, where if independents’ political opinions simply reflect “ignorance” or the partisan talking points du jour. In fact, if we think that voting _should_ reflect the state of the country and not just partisan biases and habits, independents come out looking, if not necessarily enlightened, then hardly a “confused horde.”