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The Great Illusion

I SUPPOSE WE should be grateful to Linda Killian. Her new book collects in one place every clichéd and suspect empirical generalization about political independents. So in that sense—and only in that sense—it is a useful volume.  

Start with the premise of the book. It is that independents are all swing voters ready to move right or left politically—or in Killian’s feverish imagination, toward some inchoate centrist formation of the No Labels variety. This premise is based on the greatest myth in American politics: that independents are actually independent. They are not. As numerous studies have shown, the overwhelming majority of Americans who say there are “independent” lean toward one party or the other. Call them IINOs, or Independents In Name Only. IINOs who say they lean toward the Republicans think and vote just like regular Republicans. IINOs who say they lean toward the Democrats think and vote just like regular Democrats.

Just how strong is this relationship? In 2008, according to the University of Michigan’s National Election Study (NES), 90 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for Obama, actually a higher level of support than among weak Democratic partisans (those who said they were “not very strong” Democrats), 84 percent of whom voted for Obama. Among Republican-leaning independents, a still-high 78 percent voted for McCain, compared to 88 percent support among weak Republican identifiers.

Evidently, these two groups are quite different animals. On the one hand, we have a group of “independents” who voted 90 percent for Barack Obama. Moreover, as Alan Abramowitz and others have shown, the policy views of Democratic-leaning independents look just like the policy views of Democratic identifiers. On the other, we have a group of “independents” who voted 78 percent for John McCain and have policy views that look just like Republican identifiers. Clearly it does tremendous violence to the data to lump these two disparate groups together and give them a label—“independents”—that implies they do not have partisan inclinations.

Yet the “independent” group does include one sub-group whose members look and act more like swing voters. This is the so-called pure independents subgroup, those who say they do not lean toward either party. In 2008, they split their vote much more evenly between the parties—51-41 for Obama—and they have policy views that are not closely aligned with either party. But this is a small group, and because it tends to show low information, low involvement, and relatively low turnout, it is even smaller in the context of an actual election. In 2008, according to the NES, they were just 7 percent of all voters and only 20 percent of nominally independent voters.

Clearly, from the standpoint of a political campaign, it makes no sense to treat all independents as an undifferentiated mass of swing voters who are located in the center of the political spectrum. The Obama campaign, for example, should have different strategies for appealing to Democratic-leaning independents (24 percent of their 2008 support), pure independents (6 percent of 2008 support) and Republican-leaning independents (4 percent of 2008 support), since each of these groups looks, thinks and acts differently from the others. To do otherwise would be political malpractice.

None of these points appear to bother Killian at all. And this is for a very good reason: she seems completely unaware of them. This is unacceptable in a book that purports to be an in-depth analysis of its subject. The research is not obscure and it is widely available on the web. The fact that Killian did not encounter this research (bad) or chose to ignore it (worse) says nothing good about her thoroughness or objectivity in approaching her topic. One is left with the distinct feeling that her “research” was designed to buttress her pre-existing viewpoint about this group. As I have pointed out before, independents are the Rorschach test of American politics—you see in them what your beliefs and preferences incline you to see. Killian’s book follows in this not-so-proud tradition.

If Killian hasn’t bothered to look at the political science research on independents, what does she base her analysis on? There are a few references to polling data to establish that independents are a large group and that their views are in between those of Republicans and Democrats. Of course, she does not mention that most independents are closet partisans and that their views are somewhere in between Republicans and Democrats, primarily because you are averaging the views of two large and distinct partisan-leaning groups within independents. So her pass at quantitative analysis is, to put it kindly, superficial.

What she does provide are endless quotations from people who are independents or about to become independents or wish they were independents because, darn it, the parties just can’t get along and solve problems. Stretched out over three hundred pages, this gets quite tedious. It doesn’t really mitigate the tedium that Killian visits several different swing states—New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio—and trots out various quotations from people and politicians who live in those states. After awhile it all starts to sound the same. Nor does it really jazz things up when she follows the now-standard procedure of making up cute names for voter groups (Starbucks Moms and Dads! The Facebook Generation! NPR Republicans!)

So Killian’s book cannot be taken seriously as analysis, whatever its pretensions. It adds nothing of value to our understanding of independents in general and of swing voters in particular. (For an intelligent analysis of swing voters, including different ways of identifying them and assessing their importance, I recommend William Mayer’s anthology, The Swing Voter in American Politics, published by Brookings). But in truth Killian’s interests lie elsewhere, in providing a rallying cry for what she takes to be blindingly obvious—that only independents can save us from our broken political system! She fancies herself a latter-day Tom Paine, calling the preface to her book “Common Sense” and her final chapter “Battle Cry,” with a citation from Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

And exactly how does Killian propose to save us and unleash her army of independents? Well, there is the usual list of process reforms—open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, campaign finance reform—plus such anodyne recommendations as “support candidates and officials who offer solutions and are willing to work with all sides to solve our problems.” And then, inevitably, there are glowing allusions to groups such as No Labels and Americans Elect, who, like Killian, aspire to lead this alleged independent army.

It apparently doesn’t bother Killian that these groups are the creatures of lobbyists, campaign consultants, and investment bankers and are hardly representative of the ordinary independent voters whom she lionizes. But they do share with Killian a tut-tut attitude toward the political parties, an unrealistic conception of the efficacy of third-party politics in a structurally two-party system, and an obsession with the problem of the federal budget deficit. The latter represents for these groups—and for Killian—the apotheosis of everything that is evil and dysfunctional about our politics. Oh sure, there are other problems such as jobs (you could easily forget as you read this book that it was written during the Great Recession) and inequality, but clearly they do not get the blood up for Killian and her comrades.

It would be instructive for Killian to remember what happened to Barack Obama when he went to considerable lengths to negotiate with the Republicans about this very problem and offered them a “grand bargain” that involved substantial spending cuts plus some revenue increases. The Republicans rejected it out of hand: today’s Republican party doesn’t do compromise. All Obama got for his troubles was falling approval ratings among all voters, including all flavors of independents. You want compromise on this and other big problems? Support and vote for representatives who are willing to deal; oppose and vote against those who are not. Do not cower behind chimerical third-party movements that aspire to lead an army that does not exist.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West, to be released by Brookings Press in March.