The War of Independents

By | 5/02/2016 Leave a Comment
Independent voters

In an election season full of notable aspects, perhaps one of the most notable has been the powerful impact of the oft ignored “independent voter.”

With so much parsing and punditry devoted to the mood swings of Republican and Democratic voters, it’s easy to forget that this election – just like every general election – will ultimately be decided by independents. Red states will stay red and blue states will stay blue, but it’s those fickle, playing-hard-to-get swing states that each candidate will need win over if they want to see their clothes hanging in the closets at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come next January.

But as important as they are to every election cycle, this year they have proven to be an especially potent force. 

You only have to look at the dark horse, insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders – essentially an independent himself who has chosen to run as a Democrat for the purposes of the race – to see the enormous impact they’ve had in shaping the narrative of the Democratic contest. 

Estimates from CNN’s entrance and exit polls for 15 of this year’s democratic primary races show that on average a good 30-40% of Sanders’ support came from independents, and in some instances that number neared a staggering 50%. On many occasions Sanders was outperforming Clinton with independents at a ratio of 70/30 or above. 

Of course, the down side to that level of support from the non-aligned has been that in closed primaries – races where only registered Democrats are able to vote – Sanders has often underperformed. 

And then there’s Donald Trump. According to a CNBC study conducted in mid-March, Trump had at that point won 13 out of 16 open primaries. But in closed primaries, Trump came out on top in only 6 out of 14 states that had voted at that point in time, indicating at first glance that Trump is also helped strongly by the unaffiliated.

A recent study by the Washington Post, however, seemed to indicate that Trump would have performed just as well in most of those races without the independent vote. But a look at the raw data from CNN exit polls reveals that in many cases Trump pulled in the lion’s share of them anyway, suggesting that Trump benefits from the unaffiliated vote, but is not – as Sanders frequently is – dependent upon it. Case in point, the New York primary, which was open only to registered Republicans but nevertheless delivered Trump his biggest margin of victory up to that point.

Perhaps most telling of all was an independent voter preference poll done in September of last year by IVN, a publication of the Independent Voter Project, a 501(c)4 non-profit, that showed independent voters putting Sanders atop the poll with 44.7% of the vote, followed by Trump with 25.9%. 

Next in line were Ben Carson (18.7%), Rand Paul (12.1%), Ted Cruz (10.5%) and Carly Fiorina (9.4%), who were of course all still in the race back then. But alarmingly for the Clinton campaign, the former Secretary of State came in at a distant seventh with 8.6% of the independent vote.

With both Trump and Clinton on the cusp of becoming their party’s standard bearers in November, those numbers – if they stay anything close to that – could spell big trouble for one of them.

Worse still, the underlying message that so many of these voters have been expressing in this most extraordinary of election years is their frustration with and anger towards the establishment. That rejection of the status quo propelled a 74 year old Socialist Senator from Vermont and a billionaire real estate mogul/TV celebrity to the very top of the pack, challenging the establishment favorites in ways no one could have imagined.

And while one of them looks likely to fall just short of being first across the finish line, the other one does not.

The upshot:

If indeed, when the smoke has cleared, we’re faced with a Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump face-off this fall, the outcome is likely to be just as unpredictable as this entire election season has been and will likely come down to who can win the battle for the hearts and minds of the political free agents. 

But whereas Trump’s antagonism of women and Latinos will undoubtedly force him to contemplate fence-mending as well as wall-building, Clinton’s problems may be less straightforward to address. For while her political resume is certainly very impressive, many voters will be casting their ballots this year independent of it.

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