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Over the last several months, frequent headlines point to the increasing number of Independent voters in the country as a tell-tale sign that more of the American electorate is up for grabs. On the other hand, evidence shows that many “Independents” are in fact ideologically conservative and likely to be disaffected Republicans.

Both analyses miss a vital group: True “Moderate Independents” – voters who do not align themselves with either party and also consider themselves ideologically between the two parties. Although they comprise just 5 percent of the electorate, they also promise to have outsized impact in 2016.

Who are the “Moderate Independents”?

In a recent poll, Lincoln Park Strategies asked Americans to compare themselves ideologically to both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress. Overall, 23 percent of Americans rate Republicans in Congress as being less conservative than they are (the “No party for a conservative” group), while just 9 percent of Americans are “Republicans with a home” – people who rate their own ideology as being the same as the GOP. Across the aisle, 11 percent of the country is in line with the ideology of Democrats in Congress (the “Democrats with a home”), while another 19 percent feel that they are more liberal than Democrats (the “No party for a liberal” group).

Meanwhile, a plurality of Americans (24 percent) place themselves in between Congressional Democrats and Republicans. These are the “Stuck in the middle” Americans.

Source: Lincoln Park Strategies

While the chart above seems to imply that close to a quarter of Americans are swing voters, the vast majority of these “Stuck in the Middle” Americans still identify with one of the political parties. Only 27 percent of the Stuck In the Middle cohort say they’re also “Independent” – which translates to just 5 percent of the overall electorate.

Nevertheless, these ideologically moderate, politically unaffiliated voters are a powerful group to watch. For one thing, many of them are younger voters. As the following chart shows, nearly two-thirds of Moderate Independents are either millennials or Generation X – which means their influence will continue for some time.

Source: Lincoln Park Strategies

Second, Moderate Independents do have a slightly larger presence in so-called swing states. While in general the ideological makeup of swing states versus non-swing states is strikingly similar, the share of Moderate Independents is somewhat higher (6 percent versus 5 percent).
The following chart shows party affiliation and ideology, as aggregated for eight swing states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Source: Lincoln Park Strategies

These Moderate Independents in swing states are the voters that the Democratic and Republican nominees alike will be vying for and are the people for whom billions of dollars will ultimately be spent. (And anyone who doesn’t believe small numbers of voters can make a huge difference should remember the 2000 election, which was decided on a margin of fewer than 550,000 votes.)

Assuming the same number of voters turn out in these eight states in 2016 as they did in 2012 (roughly 26 million voters), and assuming that the 2016 presidential campaign will cost a total of $4 billion (though some estimates predict spending closer to $5 billion), it’s conceivable that the campaigns will be spending $3,074.38 per winnable voter. At the same time, 95 percent of voters in these states will be subjected to television ads, radio ads, mail pieces, and phone calls that will make little to no difference in how they vote.

Despite their importance, Moderate Independents also risk being left out of the policy debates the candidates will be waging throughout 2016. At the moment, both sides are intent on shoring up their ideological bases, with little attention left over for the middle.

Nevertheless, the Moderate Independents will no doubt make their voices heard next November.

Stefan Hankin

Stefan Hankin is the President of Lincoln Park Strategies, a public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C.