Michael Kazin recently wrote a piece for TNR arguing that independent voters are, for the most part, "a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent." John Sides objects:
Independents actually vote in predictable ways. Much more than partisans, they vote for the party advantaged by two fundamental factors: the economy and war. I've noted a similar point before. Let's consider the relationship between economic growth and war and the presidential vote for only the 10% or so of the population that is truly independent. In particular, I rely on a measure fromDoug Hibbs that combines income growth and military fatalities in war, and American National Election Studies data on presidential voting by party. ...
Now, it's entirely possible to argue that voting based on the economy and war isn't entirely rational. But it's a far cry from the world Kazin imagines, where if independents' political opinions simply reflect "ignorance" or the partisan talking points du jour.
This really seems to miss the point. Of course voting on the basis of economic growth in the two or three quarters leading up to an election plus military casualties is irrational. That's Kazin's point. The point that it can be predicted doesn't make it rational. Short-term economic growth and military casualties are related to good governance, but only very, very vaguely. A poor economic manager may be presiding over a peak in the business cycle, or a good economic manager may simply have run into a recession beyond his control. That's very common. As for casualties, a president may be continuing a war he inherited, or fighting a necessary war.
Would Sides vote the way independents vote? Would he even want to be friends with anybody who did? I suspect the answer to both is no.
Indeed, it's pretty clear that independents don't rationalize their votes on the basis of what drives them. They say they're voting this way or that because John McCain is too mean, or because they think Al Gore wants to cut Medicare, or that Walter Mondale is a wimp. They may be trying to grope toward explanations for behavior that's determined by factors they don't consciously realize, but that's irrational.