Charlie Cook Throws in the Towel on Indies

One of the more heated political science controversies in recent years has been over the role of independents in deciding elections and/or embodying “the center” of public opinion. Emory’s Alan Abromowitz penned the definitive refutation of indie-dolatry in 2011 for Larry Sabato’s site, touching on both the self-identification problem (a majority of people who self-identify as indies vote exactly like partisans) and the notion that the presidential candidate winning indies wins elections.

But still, throughout the most recent cycle, you had pundit after pundit monitoring independent sentiment obsessively, often suggesting Mitt Romney’s relatively strong standing with them was an omen of ultimate victory–right up to the very end of the campaign.

So it’s significant that one of the most revered of election pundits, Charlie Cook, has published a column reversing his own opinion on this subject:

For many years, I have been fixated on independent voters as the political equivalent of the holy grail. But now I believe voters who describe themselves as moderates are certainly just as important—and perhaps more important—than those who call themselves independents….

[L]ast year, Mitt Romney won the independent vote 50 to 45 percent, yet lost the election by almost 4 percentage points. For many avid election-watchers, if all that we knew was that Romney would carry the independent vote by 5 points, many of us would have bet on Obama losing the election. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans carried the independent vote nationally by an even wider 7 points, 51 to 44 percent, yet narrowly lost the popular vote for the House.

Cook accurately notes that there is another category of voters–often confused with independents but not at all the same people–that matter more:

While Romney won among the 29 percent of voters who identify themselves as independents by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent, he lost among the much larger group, the 41 percent who self-describe as moderates, by 15 points, 56 to 41 percent. Though congressional Republicans carried the independent vote by 7 points, they lost the moderate vote by 16 points. While conservatives certainly have bragging rights over liberals in terms of self-identification—a 10-point edge—the fact that Republicans do so badly among the largest group, moderates, is more important.

Moderates, of course, tend to self-identify as Democrats more than as Republicans, and that tendency probably prevails among indies who lean towards one party or the other.

There are some additional unresolved issues related to independents, of course. One is why they now tend to lean to the right. I’ve endorsed the theory that the discinclination of a significant number of Tea Party types to self-identify as Republicans–even though that’s overwhelmingly how they vote–has reduced the Republican ID numbers while tilting indies artificially towards GOP voting behavior. But I don’t have much non-anecdotal evidence for that common-sense observation.

Additionally, both Abramowitz and Cook agree that the steadily increasing solidarity of Democratic and Republican self-identifiers and the persistent numerical gap between the former and the latter means that indies, even if they were equiposed between the two parties, aren’t in a position to decide any but the closest elections. What would be helpful going forward is a clearer profile of the electorate–or profiles, given the crucial differences between presidential and midterm electorates–based on voting behavior and ideology rather than partisan self-identification. I’m sure someone will get that done soon. But it’s good to get at least one major source of misapprehension out of the way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.