While “Independent” voters now make up the largest share of the electorate, most Independents – as many as 87%, according to the Pew Research Center – “lean” toward one party or another. Moreover, many Independents aren’t centrists – rather, they claim that label because they are further to the right or to the left than the parties that most closely represent their views.
The true size of the swing electorate is therefore much smaller than the growth in the number of “independent” voters implies. In fact, says a new survey by the research firm Lincoln Park Strategies, just 4% of the American electorate is truly independent – unaffiliated with a political party and ideologically in the middle.
In a June 17-21 survey of 1,000 respondents, Lincoln Park found that only 21% of Americans – 10% Republican and 11% Democratic – consider themselves happy partisans whose personal ideological views are aligned with those of their chosen party. Meanwhile, 21% of Americans think of themselves as more conservative than the GOP, and 20% of Americans consider themselves more liberal than the Democratic Party. The plurality of Americans (22%) say they find themselves “stuck in the middle” – more conservative than Democrats but more liberal than Republicans.
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Yet many of these “stuck in the middle” Americans, Lincoln Park finds, still identify with one party or another. When the firm cross-referenced ideological inclinations with party identification, the share of ideologically “stuck in the middle” Americans who also identify as nonpartisan Independents was just 4%.
This dismal finding is yet more proof of a shrinking political center as Americans become increasingly politically polarized. Nonetheless, says Lincoln Park Strategies President Stefan Hankin, this bloc of nonpartisan, non-ideological voters is a crucial bellwether for the elections this fall. “What they lack in size, they make up for in importance,” he says.
For one thing, these unaffiliated, centrist Independents (whom Hankin dubs “Moderate Independents”) are still truly up for grabs. And as new polls continue to show a tightening presidential contest between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, every sliver of the electorate matters.
Lincoln Park found that fully half of these Moderate Independents haven’t yet made up their minds about their choice for President. Of the remainder, Clinton holds a 10-point edge over Trump, 23% to 13%, while 14% favor Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Neither Clinton nor Trump is popular with these voters, however. While 62% hold an unfavorable view of Clinton, 71% hold an unfavorable view of Trump (including 61% who see Trump “very unfavorably”).
Demographically, this group does not appear to be comprised of apathetic or low-information voters. According to Lincoln Park, 65% of the Moderate Independents in their survey have a college degree (compared to 46% for all self-identified Independents), and 27% are between the ages of 45 to 64. Just 32% are white and male.
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Perhaps most telling are these voters’ attitudes toward Clinton and Trump on key issues. Lincoln Park’s survey finds that while Clinton leads among these swing voters on social issues such as abortion, LGBTQ equality and immigration, Trump wins on the economy and on national security/terrorism and has a very slight edge on trade. This finding is consistent with other polls showing Clinton’s relative weakness compared to Trump on these concerns and reinforce what Clinton needs to do to make up ground with persuadable voters.
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As Trump and Clinton move closer to the general election, winning over swing voters will become an increasingly important mandate for both candidates. Tipping that balance this fall could be this key group of “Moderate Independents.”