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‘Swing’ voters, still partisan

Posted: January 6, 2012 9:46 a.m.
Updated: January 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Voters are a tough bunch to satisfy these days. The number of people who are registered to vote as Democrat or Republican has plunged by 2.5 million since 2008, according to a new tally. Independent ranks have grown. Nonetheless, studies show, most independents still vote overwhelmingly for one party or the other, even if they don't want to admit that in public.

Both parties have been losing members to the independent column since at least the 1960s. Among other reasons, television and suburbanization increasingly have liberated voters from reliance on precinct captains and other party favors.

Americans increasingly like to believe that we vote for the individual or for ideas, not the party. Considering the various scoundrels who give both parties a bad name from time to time, I understand.

That would help explain the 2.5 million defections uncovered in a USA Today analysis. Registered Democrats still outnumber other categories with more than 42 million voters, compared to 30 million Republicans and 24 million independents. But the Dems also have lost the most -- 1.7 million since 2008.

And in the eight swing states that register voters by party -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- Democrats' registration is down by 800,000 and Republicans' by 350,000. Independents have gained 325,000.

Obama won all of those eight states in his 2008 landslide, but polls and party insiders say they're mostly up for grabs in 2012. As North Carolina elections director Gary Bartlett told USA Today, the 2012 winner will be "whoever is attractive to the unaffiliated voter." Or, at least, so goes the conventional wisdom.

But maybe not. Most self-declared independents I know also make it pretty clear which side of the left-right divide they're on. That observation is backed up by election scholars. Increasingly, the academics are challenging not only the independence of independent swing voters but even the cherished notion that independents determine election outcomes.

A groundbreaking 1992 book, "The Myth of the Independent Voter" by Bruce E. Keith, David B. Magleby, Candice J. Nelson and Elizabeth Orr found that most self-identified independents were "closet partisans." They tend to think and vote mostly for the same one of the two major parties. Over time, only about 10 percent strayed across party lines enough to be called truly "independent" of either major party.

And in a further blow to independent pride, the authors found, those who actually vote the most independently also tend to be the least informed about what and whom they are voting for. (Cheer up, my fellow self-declared independent voters. The very fact that you are reading this column indicates that you probably are not part of that sadly under-informed crowd.)

More recent data from the American National Election Study analyzed by political science Prof. Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University has found that in 2008 independents made up 40 percent of eligible voters but only 33 percent of those who actually voted. Only 7 percent of the total voted as true independents with no party preference. The other indies were clearly "leaners" for one party or the other.

Nor do independents necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections, especially when the final count is close, Abramowitz writes at the Crystal Ball blog of political science professor Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia's website. In fact, he argues, in all three of the presidential elections since 1972 that were decided by a margin of less than five points, the candidate chosen by the most independent voters lost.

His examples: When Jimmy Carter won the overall popular vote in 1976, most independents voted for Gerald Ford. In 2000, most independents voted for George W. Bush but Al Gore won the overall popular vote, despite losing the Electoral College. And in 2004 most independents voted for John Kerry but George W. Bush won the overall popular vote.

Yet I suspect that there's another reason why more people are calling themselves independents these days. They're hoping that someday if there are enough independents, they might create a third party. Maybe. But, considering the wide diversity of views held by independents now, their wishes won't be easy for a third party to satisfy, either.

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