Why Not All “Independent” Voters Are the Same


The Pew Research Center’s new analysis of the American voting population makes it clear that “independent” voters – those who identify themselves as neither Democrats nor Republicans – include a range of ideologically distinct individuals clustered into three groups they call “libertarians,” “disaffecteds” and “post-moderns.”

It’s a useful typology of the electorate because a) too many analysts, especially on TV, ignore independents altogether and b) when talking about independents, it’s important to understand that they may be wildly dissimilar from one another, depending on the issue or the candidate in question.

Maybe – we can only hope – numbskull political writers and analysts who conflate “independent” with “moderate” will get the message: these two groups are not the same. One reflects party identification (or registration), the other is a measure of ideology.

Moreover, in applying the Pew typology to California, analysts should use caution: Pew and most national pollsters use party identification to classify voters, in part because some states do not have party registration and it’s therefore impossible to label voters by their actual registered status.

But in California, we have party registration and we classify voters as Democrats, Republicans, Decline to State and others (others being largely irrelevant in statewide races). Our “independents” are actually Decline to State, or DTS.

You can’t understand California elections if you don’t get the difference between our “independents” and the bloc of voters Pew and national pollsters and analysts are talking about.

Party ID versus Party Reg: In the final pre-election poll by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California, October 13-20, 2010, Democrat Jerry Brown was leading Republican Meg Whitman 52-39% among likely voters. The final outcome, BTW, was 54-41%, so the LAT/USC survey was right on the money.

Everyone who follows California politics knows that in order to win statewide, you not only have to win the vast majority of your own party’s vote – 85-90% or so – but you also have to win the “independents.” That’s because among California’s 17.3 million registered voters, 44% are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and 20% are DTS.

The LAT/USC poll did something incredibly useful. Because their survey universe was based on actual registered voters, taken from the Secretary of State’s voter rolls, the pollsters knew every respondent’s party registration. But the survey also asked people, “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat or what?”

Of those who identified themselves as “independent,” 22% were actually registered as Democrats and 30% were registered as Republicans. Just four in 10 were registered Decline to State. If party ID had been used to analyze the election – as is done by most national political analysts – it would have shown Brown leading Whitman 80-8% among Democrats, Whitman leading 75-15% among Republicans and Whitman ahead 42-40% among “independents.”

If that had actually been the case, Brown would have been in big trouble. But if you looked at party registration, the results were dramatically different: It was Brown over Whitman 73-12% among Democrats, Whitman ahead 73-16% among Republicans and – drum roll please – Brown leading Whitman 55-26% among Decline to State voters.

Which is why California analysts – as opposed to those who rely on party identification – understood that Brown had an insurmountable lead going into the final week of the campaign.

Furthermore: Want more proof of why party identification is dramatically different from party registration? Take President Obama’s job approval in that same LAT/USC survey. It was 52-43% positive overall. By party ID it was 87-9% positive among Democrats, 14-81% negative among Republicans and just 45-43% positive among independents.

But by party registration it was 81-13% positive among Democrats; 19-76% negative among Republicans and 59-28% positive among Decline to State voters. That’s 21-point difference among so-called “independents,” depending on which universe you’re talking about.

So read the Pew study of self-identified independents to understand the composition of this growing bloc of the electorate. But if you want to understand the dynamics of California elections, following actual DTS voters is a lot more important.

PS: After the election, the LAT/USC survey found this: registered Democrats reported voting for Brown over Whitman 87-10%, Republicans for Whitman 80-14% and DTS voters said they had been for Brown 59-33%. But looking at the vote according to respondents’ self-identification, it would have been Brown 93-4% among Democrats, Whitman 86-8% among Republicans and — ta da — Whitman 49-43% among “independents.”

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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar Andy says:

    Now if we could just use the same methodology in testing actual knowledge of government…

  2. avatar tonyseton says:

    DtS is an inappropriate appelation. I’m quite willing to state…that I can’t stand either the Dems or the Reps. And it might be pointed out that a bright, competent, truly independent candidate could win any major office, including the presidency next year.

    • avatar ReilleyFam says:

      I agree on the sentiment but you cannot win a big race without big money and big organizational support no matter how appealing you are. The money is obvious but the other is not so much; not only do you need workers and boot on the ground who are loyal to your message not just your paycheck but there is the dirty tricks factor. No matter if you have the money and troops, without a big party to fend off and inflict the political dirt necessary in every election (bigger the more/intense dirt) you can’t win.

  3. avatar ReilleyFam says:

    I’m a Moderate, and Independent, & registered DTS. I’ve never seen a baby I couldn’t cut in half.

  4. avatar Mark Paul says:

    Thanks for trying to push this rock up the hill. Political scientists have been pointing out for many years that many “independents” vote more reliably for one party or the other than many party registrants. But the brain-dead media keep ignoring the evidence. In a culture that denigrates partisanship and promotes the notion that sophisticated people should be seen as thinking for themselves, it’s easy to see why more people describe themselves as “independents.” But why do journalists, who are trained to get a confirming source when their mothers “I love you,” take them at their word? If DTS voters are really “independent,” why are they so heavily clustered in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties that vote overwhelmingly for Democrats?

    Now that California has abolished party primaries and gone to a two-stage general election, party registration has become essentially meaningless except in presidential primaries ( and even there it matters little if the parties allow DTS voters to participate.) So we can expect that more and more voters, as they register and re-register, will list themselves as DTS. And as they do, expect to read and hear breathless accounts reporting that California voters are becoming more “independent.” You can lead the media to data but good luck in making them think, especially if it requires breaking with the conventional wisdom.

  5. avatar Josh Joseph says:

    Mike Larsen’s “WTF is an Independent Voter?” in HuffPo summed up the topic well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-larsen/wtf-is-an-independent-vot_b_798620.html

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