Who won Tuesday’s election? Well, the Republicans for one. But, if you listen to the pundits and pollsters, it was really a victory for independents.
As the polls closed on Tuesday, some election analysts returned to a familiar refrain: the outcome of a long and bitter midterm campaign would be determined by independent voters. “Look at the Colorado race, this one is a tough one, 28 percent Democrat, 32 percent Republicans, 39 percent Independents. The candidate who wins those unaffiliated independent voters will win that big Colorado Senate race,” explained CNN’s John King on-air.
Independents, Wednesday morning reports suggested, are “back to their swing-voter status in this election.” In Illinois, Massachusetts,North Carolina and Wisconsin, appeals to independents underlie Republican success. In Iowa, it was Republican candidate Joni Ernst’s “folksy charm” that won over independent voters. Independents, it seems, were simply “sympathetic to the Republican message of more checks and balances versus the Democratic message of continuing Obama’s policies.”
Why did these alleged swing voters swing right? It is because independents who voted for Republicans were simply Republicans all along. The election was not about the Republican Party winning the independents. It was about the Democratic Party losing the Democrats.
Below we consider four common questions about independents in light of the election.
Who are these independents and why did they vote Republican?
Between 2008 and 2014 the number of registered independents increased – sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent — in states that require partisan registration. Media reports suggest that these unaffiliated renegades have come out of left-field (or, rather, center-field) to shake up the parties. At first glance, the 2014 election confirms this trend.
Exit polls show that 28 percent of people who voted identified as independents; among them, 54 percent voted Republican. This is, incidentally, not so different from what we saw in 2010, when 29 percent of voters reported that they were independent and 52 percent of them voted Republican. Both 2014 and 2010 were good for Republicans, which may lead to the conclusion that GOP successes are a result of securing independent votes.
But Independents who voted Republican were probably Republican all along. In fact, political scientists have long suggested that the vast majority of independents have clear partisan connections. When asked whether they lean toward a party, most independents are ready and able to pick one. A Pew center study conducted two weeks prior to the election, for example, showed that of the 36 percent of voters who identified as independent, 75 percent lean toward a party. What’s more, tracking elections over time shows that “leaning independents” typically vote for the party toward which they lean.
As we previously wrote, independents – by and large – are partisans gone undercover. Why? Because the label “independent” conveys a more positive image and most people want to convey the best image possible. Most people who hide behind “independence” are no different than their partisan counterparts, the only difference is that they are more embarrassed to call themselves partisans. In sum, it is unlikely that the independents who voted Republican were ever actually “up for grabs.”
Did an inability to recruit independents sink the Democrats on Election Day?
Some have suggested that the Democratic Party has an image problem. Others note that Democrats lack the “fresh ideas” to recruit independents. Could this be why independents have withheld their support?
We suggest that the Democratic Party’s problem is not with independents, but it is rather with Democrats. In a recent study, we offered people the choice of a sticker in exchange for completing a survey. Our sticker collection included an image of the Democratic donkey, and image of the Republican elephant, and an image of a non-partisan eagle. We found that when our study provided participants with information about bipartisanship they were not only more likely to choose a partisan sticker but also were more likely to display it. When the study included information about partisan conflict, on the other hand, participants were markedly more likely to choose the non-partisan eagle. Those who did still take a partisan sticker were far less likely to display it, instead opting to hide the stickers in their bag or pocket.
The take-away: partisan disagreement leads people to retreat from parties, and if information paints one particular party in a disproportionately negative light, members of that party are especially likely to avoid expressing their partisanship.
This year was not a good year for the Democratic Party, which was plagued by tales of gridlock and an unpopular president. The type of coverage the Democrats received is the exactly the type of media coverage that in our studies lead people to avoid partisanship, making them less likely to try to talk to others about politics, to display stickers and signs, and to persuade their friends to vote.
The Democrats did not lose because they couldn’t convince independents (many of whom were likely Republicans) to vote for them. They lost in part because they could not depend on their own supporters to encourage their friends to turn out and vote Democratic.
With so many independents in America, is this a sign that bipartisanship is coming to Congress?
It would be easy to connect independents to bipartisanship. In fact, many pundits and journalists make just this case, suggesting that independents are dissatisfied with legislative gridlock and want the two parties to come together. We caution against taking the 2014 election as a referendum on bipartisanship.
In a national experiment, we presented a representative sample of more than 1,000 Americans with different types of political scenarios. In one scenario, Democrats and Republicans reached a compromised, but the respondent’s preferred party had to make many concessions in order to reach this compromise. In a different scenario, the parties also compromised, but it was the opposition that made more concessions. In a third scenario the parties could not reach a compromise at all. Unsurprisingly, we find that partisans prefer gridlock to compromise if compromise means that their party has to make a sacrifice. Political scientists Laurel Harbridge, Neil Malhotra and Brian Harrison find a similar pattern among partisans in a different study.
What is surprising is that independents feel the exact same way. In fact, independents who leaned toward a party actually preferred an outcome of gridlock to any scenario in which their preferred party had to make any concession! Independents may say that they want more compromise, but just like partisans they don’t want that compromise to come at the expense of their preferred party.
With so many independents, is there a chance for a viable third party candidate to emerge in 2016?
“If people don’t like their choices with the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate, then you’re going to see a spurt in third-party candidates, so they can definitely affect outcomes,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) said to the New York Times shortly before the election. With an unprecedented number of independent voters across several states, has that time come?
Despite the large proportion of Tuesday’s voters who identified as independents, we saw nary a victory for a third party candidate. In Kansas, high-profile independent candidate Greg Orman lost to incumbent Pat Roberts by more than 10 percentage points. Among the 28 percent of Kansas voters who reported they were independent, only a slim majority (54 percent) cast ballots for Orman. By contrast, nearly 90 percent of Republicans voted for their party’s candidate.
While it is possible that Orman was not the candidate that Kansas independents wanted, it is more likely that most of these independents were Republicans all along. And Orman’s independent voters were actually Democrats who lacked a party candidate.
Independent voters in America are not undecided. Rather, many are ashamed to be associated with either party. As 2016 approaches, pundits, journalists, and politicians should be careful not to misinterpret the proportion of independent voters as evidence that Americans are ready for a third party. Our research recommends a different interpretation: a growing number of Americans are too embarrassed to admit their partisanship and fail to openly support and turnout for their party. It is unlikely that these people are “up for grabs.”
Samara Klar is a political scientist at the University of Arizona. Yanna Krupnikov is a political scientist at Stony Brook University.