By Stephen Kaufman
The United States may have a political system dominated by two parties, Republican and Democratic, but according to a recent poll, more Americans identify themselves as being independent rather than belonging to either party, and the historical record has shown that independents tend to sway the outcome of U.S. elections.
According to a Gallup Poll released in January, the number of Americans identifying themselves as independent rose to 40 percent, the highest level ever measured by Gallup, followed by Democrats and Republicans with 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
But according to Tara McGuinness, a senior vice president at the Washington-based public policy research and advocacy group Center for American Progress, the apparent surge in the number of independents does not mean that most votes in the November presidential election between President Obama and his probable opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, are undecided.
Speaking at the Washington Foreign Press Center April 13, McGuinness said perhaps half of independents actually lean toward one of the two parties. In reality, she said, only about 15 percent of American voters are truly independent, voting sometimes for Democrats and sometimes for Republicans, and they are statistically less likely to vote than their partisan counterparts.
U.S. presidential elections are often very close in terms of the popular vote. In 2008, President Obama beat Arizona Senator John McCain with 52.9 percent of the popular vote, compared to 45.7 percent for McCain. That figure closely resembles the fact that Obama won 52 percent of independent voters, compared with 44 percent for McCain.
“As independents go, frequently elections go,” McGuinness said. “Especially in close elections, you could not win … [by] simply targeting independent voters, but frequently you cannot win an election without targeting some independent voters.”
In 2008, many independents who voted for Obama also voted for President George W. Bush in his 2004 contest against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
“It’s kind of interesting to think about. Who would pull the lever for George Bush at the height of the Iraq War and go in and pull the lever for Barack Obama who made his candidacy early on on being against the Iraq War?” McGuinness said. But independent voters “tend to be much less ideological,” and combine core ideas championed by both parties, such as favoring both fiscal conservatism and socially liberal causes.
In fact, she said, a candidate’s quality of leadership and judgment may appeal to independents rather than their policies. Also, she said that outside factors, such as the economic recession of 2008, may have played a role in swaying independents who had voted for Bush based on national security concerns to switch to Obama when economic concerns took precedence.
When voting, some independents have also selected candidates from different political parties for different offices, a practice known as split-ticket voting. For example, a voter might choose Democrat Barack Obama for president, but also select a Republican nominee for Congress.
McGuinness said the percentage of Americans describing themselves as independent fluctuates from year to year.
“Americans in general like to think of ourselves as independent people,” she said. “This is a cultural characteristic as well as a political characteristic,” even if in reality most tend to agree more with Republicans or Democrats.
But the recent surge in independents may reflect disgust with both parties as a result of partisan gridlock in Washington and a perceived failure to fundamentally address issues of concern, such as people having enough money to sustain themselves with food, shelter, health care and education. McGuinness said an increase in negative campaign advertising, funded in part as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United, may also be turning people off from being willing to identify with either party.