Swinging Indies

So in its continuing effort to convince Democrats that they need to focus on attracting independent voters even if it risks the affection of “base” voters, the Third Way organization has released a new (if brief) study aimed at rebutting the popular political science tenet that most indies are just disguised partisans who don’t like party labels for one reason or another. An earlier study by Todd Eberly (which I evaluated here) argued that indies (at least in the 2000-2004 period which was, strangely, the only cohort considered) were more at odds ideologically with “base” voters in the Democratic than in the Republican coalition. This time around, Third Way suggests that Democratic-leaning indies are more than willing to leave the coalition altogether, though again only looking at that narrow 2000-2004 window.

The point the study tries to make is a legitimate one: static considerations of the attitudes of self-identified indies at any one moment miss the possibility that their refusal to identify with either party, even if they are voting uniformly for one over the other, could be a leading indicator for future realignment with the other party. And it’s true, historically, that voting blocs in transition from one party to another often “pause” at independent or third-party way stations.

But unfortunately, and in part because of its exceptionally narrow window of analysis, the Third Way study doesn’t much prove Democrats presently have anything in particular to worry about with respect to today’s Democratic-leaning indies.

As TAP’s Jamelle Bouie suggested in his critical review of the Third Way study, it seems very likely that a significant share of Democratic-leaning indies between 2000 and 2004 were part of that decades-long migration of conservative southern Democrats towards identification with the GOP. That process has pretty much reached the point of diminishing returns by now. It’s hard to know for sure without regional breakouts, which Third Way did not supply.

But I’d make an even more fundamental point: if you look at Gallup’s data on party ID, 2000-2004 was a very unusual period–the first time since the early 90s when Rs caught up with Ds. In 2004, moreover, indies became a lower share of the electorate than they had been since the 1980s. By 2008, it was a very different picture, with Dems and indie ID up sharply and Republicans dropping to levels associated with the post-Watergate years. So it may well be the Third Way study happened to concentrate on the one recent period when both indie and Democratic shares of the electorate drooped simultaneously.

Unless the study is extended forward in time, it really doesn’t tell us much of value at all. But as always, some people will read the headlines or the conclusion and determine something’s been “proved” that remains as much in dispute as ever.

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.