If the Democrats can keep the support of Independent Voters, they can win key swing States and maintain control of the Senate. But who are they? And what do they want?
A popular image of an independent voter is a white middle-class suburbanite. But that image, if it was ever true, is far more complex.
One surprising finding that came out of a Pew Research study of independent voters was that they had a most significant share of those under the age of fifty (62%) compared to the Democrats (50%) or the Republicans (44%). That younger slice of the voting population is why the following policies rank within the top ten issues of importance to Independents: debt-free state college, a $15 minimum wage, and legalizing marijuana. Democrats attract independent voters that they lead on these issues, not the Republicans.
Another research finding was that more men than women identified as independent voters. Pew reported: Men constitute a majority (56%) of independents. That is higher than the share of men among Republican identifiers (51% are men) and much higher than the share of men among Democrats (just 40%). Democratic candidates must consider the prominent presence of independent male voters when they approach all issues. Candidate Joe Biden made more significant headway in getting male voters. He evenly split their vote with Trump, unlike in 2016 when Trump won men by 11 points
On the downside for Democrats is a growing trend of more minority voters becoming independent voters. A Gallup poll from 2012 found that many independent voters are indeed white. However, non-Hispanic whites comprise 89% of Republicans while Indies are at 70% Republicans. Democrats are 60% white.
The largest minority appearing among Independent Voters is Hispanic, comprising 16%, where only 6% of Republicans are Hispanic, and Democrats are at 13%. Although, as early as 2012, half of Hispanics identified as independents, their voting pattern is noticeably
drifting away from supporting Democrats.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of all available polls, Hispanics have turned away from Biden more than any other racial or ethnic group. Moreover, their distancing from the Democrats began before Biden became president. The Democratic data firm Catalist figured that the GOP gained eight points among Hispanic voters in the November 2020 elections, with overall support for Democratic House candidates down from over 60 percent to 37 percent in a year.
If this trend continues, Democrats will face more challenging elections to win. This is particularly true since the Hispanic share of the electorate has increased by about 30 percent from Obama’s first presidential election to Biden’s election.
Black voters have also been slipping away from the Democrats to a much smaller degree during this period. A Gallup found that 8% of Independents are Non-Hispanic Blacks — compared to 22% for Democrats and 2% for Republicans. However, an independent study found that about 30% of Blacks self-identify as independent voters. Moreover, although Blacks have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic presidents in the last three elections, from a high of 97% in 2012 for Obama to 90% for Biden in 2020, close to a third consider themselves independent of the Democratic Party.
Aside from the mistaken belief that independents lack ethnic diversity, another false perception sees them as a single group. In fact, they consist of three groups. Pew Research in 2017 found that independent voters that decline to lean toward a party make up less than 10%, and they are the group with the lowest voter turnout. The balance is roughly divided in half. Various polls have given an edge to the D or R but looking at the results over the last three decades leaves those leaning to either party roughly equal.
Nevertheless, Pew discovered that even if independents lean toward one party, they often hold beliefs that conflict with the party toward which they lean. Democrats need to recognize how to approach issues that would move Republican-leaning independents to vote for them.
Take gun control as an example. While most Rs, Independents, and Democrats oppose a total ban on guns, not banning them was the third-most important issue for independents. Nevertheless, Independents are far more open to considering restrictions on access to guns than Republicans. They ranked universal background checks before gun purchases as eighth in importance and had the support of 93% of all independents.
This issue could favor Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, who will be facing a Trumpian Republican to replace the moderate Republican Sen. Patrick Toomey, who is retiring this year. Toomey worked with Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin to expand background checks, but the Republicans blocked it in 2012. That was the closest the Senate got to passing a gun-control measure in a decade. Fetterman can take this same position and force the Republican candidate to accept it or face the wrath of the NRA. Moreover, Fetterman will win over Independents no matter how the Republican candidate responds.
Of higher importance is independents opposition to completely banning abortion which is ranked the fourth-most important issue for them, with 77 against prohibiting abortion. Democrats were 87 against it, and Republicans were at 65 percent against it. However, Republicans ranked completely banning abortion at 13 in importance. Republican-leaning independents will support retaining Roe, while the Republican candidates fuel the message of anti-abortion groups that label Democratic Senate candidates as abortion extremists.
An anti-abortion group has a $1 million statewide ad campaign attacking U.S. Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona. He is accused of being a pro-abortion extremist because he voted for, like all Democrat Senators, the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which the anti-abortionists label as the “Abortion on Demand Until Birth Act.”
The Act retains the intent of the language in the Roe ruling, which allows for abortions if deemed necessary by the “appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.” The legislation has similar language. It allows abortion if “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.” There is no practical difference, yet all Republicans in the Senate voted to overthrow the Roe policy that has been a constitutional right for fifty years.
Supporting gay marriage is another clear distinction Pew uncovered between Republican-leaning independents and Republicans. As of 2017, a narrow majority of Republicans (54%) opposed same-sex marriage, while 58% of Republican-leaning independents favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 70% of all independents favored it.
Consider how efforts by the most conservative Republican leaders interpret a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade as also outlawing gay marriages. Democrat candidates could force Republican candidates to part ways with this effort and show how a Democrat protects the rights of all citizens.
Some Democrats argue that they need to get more of their base out to win elections. But unfortunately, voter suppression measures passed by Republican legislatures will make that a more difficult task for Senate races, which are not impacted by gerrymandering.
Fortunately, research shows that attracting independent voters does not necessarily water down the Democrats’ agenda. Instead, their policy objectives are sharpened by focusing on specific measures that can implement their basic principles. And importantly, that outreach also provides them a way of bringing in new independent voters and retaining prior ones who had previously not voted or voted for Republicans.
A strategy that secures and expands the movement of independents to vote for Democrat Senator candidates is necessary to ensure their control of the US Senate. Suppose they push for measures that don’t recognize the nuanced positions independent voters take. In that case, the Democrats can expect to lose the Senate and have Biden’s legislative initiatives be confined to taking losing votes in Congress. That will demonstrate how brave they are and how ineffective. That’s not a winning strategy for winning the next presidential election.
Nick Licata is the author of
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