Understanding the Unaffiliateds

What does the uptick in independent voters really mean?

With the midterm elections looming on the horizon, stories about voter frustration are all the rage. Today, USA Today takes a stab at the subject, devoting its lead space to an article noting that “unaffiliated” registrations—voters who aren’t officially aligned with any party—are on the rise in at least some states. Unfortunately, the story proceeds from this potentially interesting data point to some misleading analysis.

Things start to go wrong at the outset. Here’s the lead:

The nation’s fastest-growing political party is “none of the above,” which could be bad news for Democrats and Republicans.

It’s not exactly clear what this means—is it bad news for various individual politicians, some of whom are Democrats, and some of whom are Republicans? Or is it bad for Democrats as a party and Republicans as a party? The first option is theoretically possible, though it’s not really proven by the rest of the piece. And the second option, which seems more likely based on what follows, doesn’t make much sense. At the national level, we have only two political parties of significance, which are locked in a zero-sum competition. In terms of election outcomes, a trend can’t simultaneously represent “bad news” for both of them.

The story continues:

The number of independent voters has grown faster in the past two years than Democrats and Republicans in at least 14 of the 28 states and the District of Columbia that register voters by party, according to a USA TODAY review.

“It’s been a steady incline,” says Ken Bennett, secretary of State in Arizona, where unaffiliated voters have jumped 30% since 2008. “It’s kind of an in-your-face reminder to candidates of both parties that there’s a whole other block of people who have to be acknowledged and courted.”

If this spike in unaffiliated voters is real, it’s interesting to know about, and it would be interesting to know what’s driving it. But there’s reason to be skeptical about the electoral significance of this trend, because, despite what Bennett says, it’s not likely that these unaffiliateds represent “a whole other block of people” in any meaningful sense.

For one thing, as we’ve noted before, most voters who call themselves “independents” aren’t really independent—they lean definitely toward one party or another, and side with that party as often as weak partisans.

For another, even if these voters were “independent,” they wouldn’t represent any sort of coherent block unless they were independent for the same reasons. There’s a background assumption in a lot of political journalism that “independent” or “unaffiliated” means “centrist,” but the article makes no real attempt to prove that’s what is happening in Arizona—or anywhere else, for that matter.

This misguided analytical framework leads into what seems to be a misreading of an actual campaign dynamic:

The trend might bode well for moderates in states with open primaries, where the unaffiliated can vote. It could help GOP Sen. John McCain in Arizona and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, being challenged by traditional party stalwarts, says Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

The Cook Report is well regarded, so maybe something got lost in translation here. But if there’s a moderate block of voters eager to vote cast a ballot for an “independent” politician in an Arizona primary, someone might want to tell McCain, who sure seems to be under the impression that his biggest threat comes from J.D. Hayworth, the “traditional party stalwart” running to his right. McCain has spent the last couple months abandoning the independent persona he has cultivated so assiduously over the years, even embarrassingly denying that he’d ever called himself a maverick. Like most primary campaigns, it’s an effort designed to shore up support among the base—in McCain’s case, conseveratives—not reach out to disaffected moderates. (And given the trends in Arizona’s political culture, that seems like a smart move.)

Of course, as the crescendo of recent Tea Party coverage has told us, some parts of that conservative base may have grievances with the GOP, and thus be unwilling to formally identify with it. But that trend points to another explanation of what is driving the rise in unaffiliated voters, one that may undercut its electoral importance. According to a recent Pew survey, the political mood of the country is pretty much, “everybody hates everything”—or at least, everybody hates all the big institutions, the big political parties apparently included. It’s no surprise, then, that affiliation with those parties may be lagging.

But if that is what’s happening, it doesn’t necessarily follow that voters’ underlying political views are shifting—meaning, again, that these “unaffiliateds” are not a discrete block to court. Even more importantly, it doesn’t mean that the available choices are changing. If “frustrated voters” are “cut[ting] ties” with the parties, as the story’s headline has it, that might matter if the frustration is not evenly distributed—if, for example, one party loses more of its connection with its donors, organizers, and the volunteers. But come Election Day, when voters head to the polls, those whose views align with the Democrats’ will pull that lever, and the same goes for the GOP. And as for the “none of the above” party? It won’t be on the ballot.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.