The Washington Post

Overselling the importance of independent voters

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

“Independents are going to decide this race in all of these states. Governor Romney consistently leads among independents because they've seen his message for creating 12 million jobs, real recovery, strengthening the middle class.”

— Rick Beeson, Romney campaign political director, Fox News Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

We don’t mean to pick on Beeson two weeks after the election, since his notion that independent voters were critical to the outcome was widely shared by reporters and political analysts.

 The Wall Street Journal, for instance, offered this headline Nov. 5: “Votes of Independents Could Be Key.” The article noted that Mitt Romney had a seven-point lead among independent voters, in a WSJ-NBC News poll, and it quoted a pollster as saying the finding posed a problem for President Obama: “You are really flirting with trouble if you’re losing independents by this margin.”

 So what happened? Obama lost independents by a margin of 45 percent to 50 percent — and he still won the election handily.

 Indeed, in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee, won the “independent” vote — 54 percent to 45 percent — and also lost.

 Let’s dig into the exit polls and find out what’s really going on.


The Facts

 Among the many questions on exit polls, there are two overlapping queries — one that asks about political ideology (liberal, moderate and conservative) and one that asks about political party affiliation (Democrat, Republican or independent).

Between 2004 and 2012, there has been an important shift in political ideology — from moderate to liberal.  In other words, more people self-identify themselves as liberals, fewer as moderates and about the same as conservatives.


2004: 21 percent

2012: 25 percent



2004: 45 percent

2012: 41 percent



2004: 34 percent

2012: 35 percent

 Though the count has not yet been completed, Obama appears to have won 50.7 percent of the vote, compared to 47.6 percent for Romney. By contrast, George W. Bush won 50.7 percent of the vote in 2004, compared to 48.3 percent for Kerry. A large part of the difference in the results is because voters overall have turned more liberal.

 Now let’s look at what happened to the ideology of the self-described independents, who are also asked about their political leanings. Strikingly, this group has become even more conservative even as the country has moved to the left.


2004: 21 percent

2012: 19 percent



2004: 56 percent

2012: 50 percent



2004: 23 percent

2012: 31 percent

 In other words, in 2012, independents were more likely to be Republican-leaning voters. Perhaps these are tea party aficionados. Or maybe they are Republicans who were dissatisfied by the GOP nominee. But in any case, Romney was winning the votes of people who would have been in his camp in the first place. So that’s why capturing the independent vote still left him short.

 And how did Obama do among voters with a “moderate” ideology? He crushed Romney, 56 percent to 41 percent.


The Bottom Line

 We can’t really hand out Pinocchios in this matter, but just be wary when you hear a political pundit speak about the importance of independent voters.

 The “independent” vote is a political chimera — an ever-changing organism that does not shed much light on who is going to win the election. Political ideology is a much better guide to figuring out who is going to be the winner — and the loser.

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.


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