Political Animal


January 08, 2013 3:14 PM Charlie Cook Throws in the Towel on Indies

By Ed Kilgore

One of the more heated political science controversies in recent years has been over the role of independents in deciding elections and/or embodying “the center” of public opinion. Emory’s Alan Abromowitz penned the definitive refutation of indie-dolatry in 2011 for Larry Sabato’s site, touching on both the self-identification problem (a majority of people who self-identify as indies vote exactly like partisans) and the notion that the presidential candidate winning indies wins elections.

But still, throughout the most recent cycle, you had pundit after pundit monitoring independent sentiment obsessively, often suggesting Mitt Romney’s relatively strong standing with them was an omen of ultimate victory—right up to the very end of the campaign.

So it’s significant that one of the most revered of election pundits, Charlie Cook, has published a column reversing his own opinion on this subject:

For many years, I have been fixated on independent voters as the political equivalent of the holy grail. But now I believe voters who describe themselves as moderates are certainly just as important—and perhaps more important—than those who call themselves independents….
[L]ast year, Mitt Romney won the independent vote 50 to 45 percent, yet lost the election by almost 4 percentage points. For many avid election-watchers, if all that we knew was that Romney would carry the independent vote by 5 points, many of us would have bet on Obama losing the election. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans carried the independent vote nationally by an even wider 7 points, 51 to 44 percent, yet narrowly lost the popular vote for the House.

Cook accurately notes that there is another category of voters—often confused with independents but not at all the same people—that matter more:

While Romney won among the 29 percent of voters who identify themselves as independents by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent, he lost among the much larger group, the 41 percent who self-describe as moderates, by 15 points, 56 to 41 percent. Though congressional Republicans carried the independent vote by 7 points, they lost the moderate vote by 16 points. While conservatives certainly have bragging rights over liberals in terms of self-identification—a 10-point edge—the fact that Republicans do so badly among the largest group, moderates, is more important.

Moderates, of course, tend to self-identify as Democrats more than as Republicans, and that tendency probably prevails among indies who lean towards one party or the other.

There are some additional unresolved issues related to independents, of course. One is why they now tend to lean to the right. I’ve endorsed the theory that the discinclination of a significant number of Tea Party types to self-identify as Republicans—even though that’s overwhelmingly how they vote—has reduced the Republican ID numbers while tilting indies artificially towards GOP voting behavior. But I don’t have much non-anecdotal evidence for that common-sense observation.

Additionally, both Abramowitz and Cook agree that the steadily increasing solidarity of Democratic and Republican self-identifiers and the persistent numerical gap between the former and the latter means that indies, even if they were equiposed between the two parties, aren’t in a position to decide any but the closest elections. What would be helpful going forward is a clearer profile of the electorate—or profiles, given the crucial differences between presidential and midterm electorates—based on voting behavior and ideology rather than partisan self-identification. I’m sure someone will get that done soon. But it’s good to get at least one major source of misapprehension out of the way.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Robb on January 08, 2013 3:35 PM:

    Back when I was doing my undergrad-- this would have been a bit after the Bush-Kerry election-- the numbers we were taught in PS classes showed a slight tendency of Independents leaning Republican, so it's not really new.
    Maybe the gap has widened.

    I think it's the whole "fiscal conservative/social liberal" thing. You know, the country's most over-represented group because its members are wealthy and influential compared to the rest of the population.

    I think they consider themselves Independents but tend to vote their pocketbooks.
    They're the people who backed Romney under the assumption that he was lying on his more extreme stances.

  • dalloway on January 08, 2013 3:35 PM:

    "Independents" are primarily Republicans who can no longer stand to be associated with the brand. Reasons for this include the massive failures of the Bush administration, the abysmal stupidity of the Tea Party and the insane clown posse that moon performed the Republican primary last year.

  • KK on January 08, 2013 3:54 PM:

    Way back talking to my DDdy about Independents he gave the truth of the matter "as Harry Truman said 'Show me an Independant and I'll show you a Republican' "
    It has been ever thus apparently...

  • merrinc on January 08, 2013 4:13 PM:

    Interesting but not surprising considering the amount of campaign lit we received from the GOP and their candidates this past election. I've been an independent since the mid 80s, my husband since the late 70s, and we both vote primarily Democratic. In 2012, we voted straight Dem. Living in NC, we can choose which primary we wish to participate in and we usually vote in the Republican primary and do our best to pick moderate candidates. If we're going to have a two party system, we'd prefer that one of them at least be sane.

  • c u n d gulag on January 08, 2013 4:17 PM:

    "Moderates," are moderate.

    "Independents," are now people running away from the stench of the George W. Bush brand of Republican politics.

    No one but the hardest of hard-core Republicans wants to be associated with the team of epic losers that allowed a spy plane to be captured by the Chinese and had it handed back to them in pieces, had 9/11 happen on their watch, started two budget-busting wars and occupations for no good reason, gave Big Pharma a give-away, tortured people, spied on citizens, and then der
    egulated the financial world, and ignored warnings there like they did on 9/11, to the point where it almost collapsed not only OUR economy, but the entire world's economy.

    The Republican Party after 8 years of W, makes the Chicago Cubs look like the NY Yankees.

  • Rich on January 08, 2013 5:38 PM:

    The lumping and splitting of the electorate by pollsters has mostly short on real data and mostly nonsense. Independents include those people who consider themseleves "above" politics. They probably trend Republican now given the extremism of the party. I would imagine that moderates are actually a heterogenous group--some base their moderation on social issues (a big chunk of the country club Republicans and their small business base), others on taxes (a willingness to see tax increases that are spent on something useful), or foreign policy (mostly important in times of war or tensions); these different subgroups are probably somewhat fluid and more important in some w\eras than others depending on major issues. Iwouldn't wait until political scientists and pollsters figure out the obvious like this.

  • Mimikatz on January 08, 2013 6:02 PM:

    From the research I have read the problem is that there are several groups who self-identify as "independent". One is the apolitical, whether from low information, lack of time or disdain. Others are those who dislike some of the stands of the party they normally vote with enough to register or self-describe as independent, and with the Tea Party there are more of these who vote GOP than those who think the Dem Party is too centrist. So while "moderate" at least describes a temperament and consensus policies, independent is pretty meaningless as a category. The problem for the Dems is that they are urged both to pay more attention to their base, which is lefter than the party, and also attract moderates who are repelled by the far right element in their party.

  • Helen Bedd on January 08, 2013 8:04 PM:

    Too bad Cook doesn't provide regional breakdowns to those independent numbers, because I suspect Romney's increase was mostly in the states he was going to win anyway.

    In 08 Obama won independents in the states he won [except for VA and NC] while McCain won independents in the states he won [except for KS, and ironically AZ].

    And for those who confuse independent and moderate, I point out this: In 08 Obama won independents in 29 states; he won moderates in 43.

    Obama actually did better with moderates in 08 [winning then 60-40] than he did in 12.

  • Scott Farris on January 09, 2013 1:34 AM:

    I would think a lot of this dates back to Perot, when his candidacy triggered a big swing toward self-identification as an "independent" because of the message that both parties were irretrievably broken. Later, most studies of the Perot movement later concluded that while Perot did attract q wide spectrum of supporters, his support primarily came from disaffected conservatives who had always tended to vote Republican and who went back to voting Republican again when Perot exited the scene. There is also the fact that the whole Republican "Contract With America" schtick was a rip-off of Perot's platform, further cementing the Perotistas to the GOP. No one's voting patterns really changed, just the label on the can.

  • warren terrah on January 09, 2013 5:57 AM:

    Independents are people who are too embarrassed to be connnected to their party. Right now, its Republicans with Bush the Son's disaster. It used to be the Dems with Clinton and Monica, and at another time, Dems with Carter. Now things have changed and Carter looks brilliant 20/20 and he's run an exemplary post presidency and we all know what's happened to Clinton.....also, Monica who???

  • Robb on January 09, 2013 8:07 AM:

    Scott, I think you're right. It probably started with Perot.