For the political marketer, identifying truly independent voters can be tricky because Americans are predisposed to say that they are one of them. After all, being an independent is a good thing. In the popular news media, the independent voter is portrayed as a more virtuous public citizen than the “hard core partisans who refuse to compromise or reach across the aisle.” Americans constantly hear, and believe, that open-minded independents decide elections. Doesn’t every voter want to be one of these key decision makers instead of a nasty partisan? Independents get interviewed by reporters, invited to focus groups, and might even get to be in a debate night “dial group” on a cable news network and meet Frank Luntz in person. Just like being “green”, being a political independent is something that can make you proud of yourself. It’s amazing that there are any partisans still left in modern America.
For all the reasons above, survey respondents are biased to over-report being an independent or “leaner” when they talk to poll takers (just as they over-report how often they actually vote in elections.) In nearly all professional political polls, the party identification question (“Do you consider yourself a ….?”) comes at the end of the survey after the respondent has made numerous personal evaluations about issues, elected officials, candidates, and often the parties themselves. After ten to twenty minutes of these sorts of questions—most of which the respondent is thinking about for the first time—comes the party id question when the respondent is asked “What team are you on?” It can be easy to give the politically correct answer of “I vote for the person, not for the party,” and describe yourself as an independent or just “leaning” Democratic or Republican. Traditional political polling could be giving us a muddy view of the true partisanship of the voting population.
For a clearer and more granular perspective on the independent voter, our firm in 2001 began purchasing and analyzing large-sample consumer research databases, including the Scarborough survey of approximately 220,000 American adults each year. The very large sample size enables us to examine small voter groups and specific media usage behaviors that can’t accurately be measured with traditional political surveys of 300-1200 respondents. Additionally, there is less potential for question bias in consumer surveys such as Scarborough. The party identification question on the Scarborough questionnaire is not preceded by other political questions that might contaminate the party id response. As in an exit poll or the Census, Scarborough respondents complete a written survey and can privately indicate their true partisan leanings without having to tell an interviewer. Based on approximately 416,000 interviews conducted in 2010 and 2011, the American political market looks something like this:
Describing themselves as “independents” are 10.6% of registered voters. Interestingly, another 9.4% of registered voters check “None of these,” a category similar to the “None of the above” that occasionally appears on ballots. “None of these” (let’s call them nones) are an interesting group, and remind us that there are different breeds of non-partisan voters. Many of the nones are Americans who are simply not interested in politics and do not participate – among those not registered to vote, 56.9% describe themselves as nones vs. just 9.4% among registered voters. A Republican who is an avid supporter of the Tea Party could find herself checking “None of these” on the survey, and we can assume some percentage of nones identify with the Tea Party, libertarian candidates like Ron Paul, and other smaller “parties” and movements.
What is clear is that the percentage of all types of independents – including independents who “lean” toward both parties — has been increasing in Obama was elected. The combined group of independent leaners, pure independents, and nones now account for 40.7% of all registered voters, a marked increase since Obama was elected in 2008. The impact of independents on the 2012 election will be larger in than in was in 2008.