In an age when the two parties disagree sharply on almost every major issue, it can be tempting to assume that almost every voter is a committed supporter of either the Democrats or Republicans, and that each election is decided merely by whether Team Red or Team Blue drives more loyalists to the polls. But evidence is piling up that political independents played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the 2022 elections — and it’s very possible that they could be an equally critical factor in 2024.
About 40% of adult Americans consider themselves independents rather than members of either major party. Because independents are less likely than partisans to vote, they always represent a smaller share of the electorate than of the total population. Even so, exit polls reported that independents represented 31% of all voters in 2022, only slightly less than the number of self-identified Republicans (36%) or Democrats (33%).
Political scientists have long recognized that many nominal independents behave much like partisans. Most report feeling closer to one of the major parties than the other. They are likely to agree with their favored party on policy issues and to support its nominees in elections. Many scientific studies go so far as to treat independents who lean toward one party as no different from people who identify themselves as members of that party.
But not every independent is a closet Democrat or Republican, and independents are still much more likely than other voters to shift their candidate preferences from one race to the next. The Republican victories in the 2014 midterm election were aided by a 12-point margin favoring the party’s nominees among independent voters. In 2018, independents swung in the opposite direction, giving Democratic candidates an identical 54% to 42% advantage that contributed to the party’s success in regaining control of the House of Representatives.
The lack of a widely expected “red wave” in 2022 can be largely attributed to the Republican Party’s limited appeal among independent voters. Although exit polls indicate that the share of Republican identifiers in the national electorate exceeded that of Democrats by three percentage points this year, Democratic House candidates’ narrow edge among independents prevented a rerun of 2014 and kept the GOP to an uncomfortably narrow majority.
And the behavior of independent voters was even more consequential for control of the Senate. Exit polls suggest that Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in the four crucial states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania; in a fifth, New Hampshire, the two parties were represented in equal proportions. But Democratic candidates won the Senate races in all five states by carrying the independent vote — and in each state except Nevada, the Democratic nominee’s margin among independents exceeded 10 percentage points.
One obvious explanation for this pattern is the mismatch in candidate quality between the parties in many Senate campaigns, as mistake-prone Republican nominees struggled to appeal beyond their conservative base. But Democrats’ success among independents also reflects important recent changes in the parties’ popular constituencies. Independent status can be a convenient waystation for voters who have become alienated from their former party but are not ready to embrace the opposite party.
For example, Pennsylvania’s Chester County is a prosperous suburban enclave outside Philadelphia that voted Republican for president in all but one election between 1968 and 2012. The county moved away from the GOP after Donald Trump’s ascension, and Democrats have now achieved a narrow registration advantage of nearly 8,000 voters countywide. But Joe Biden carried Chester County over Trump by over 53,000 votes in 2020, John Fetterman prevailed over his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz by more than 43,000 votes in this year’s Senate contest, and Democrat Josh Shapiro trounced Republican Doug Mastriano by over 68,000 votes in the gubernatorial race.
All these outcomes reflect a significant Democratic advantage among suburban independents. In many rural areas, by contrast, it’s Republican candidates who overperform among independents.
Electoral success among independents can serve as a leading indicator of larger partisan trends, demonstrating that not all citizens are wedded to a single partisan identity for life. With every reason to expect yet another close national election in 2024, both Democrats and Republicans should remember that some voters are still open to persuasion. They can be won over — or they can be driven away.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”
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