Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Independents are actually... pretty independent

Would closeted Republicans actually prefer Nancy Pelosi's Democrats to congressional Republicans? Well, indies do.

Over the past six months, self-described "independents" have been increasingly dubbed and dismissed as "closeted Republicans" who are disaffected with the party.

The thinking goes that to get the true measure of centrists, you need to pay attention to the political preferences of those describing themselves as "moderate."

Last week, I showed just how flawed that is -- that self-described "moderates" have been voting heavily Democratic since 1988, probably because they're forced to identify as "conservative", "liberal", or "moderate" in polling, and Democrats pick "moderate" because "liberal" is a fairly stigmatized word.

Regardless of their motivations, it's utterly insane to suggest that moderates are a reasonable reflection of the political center, particularly because they voted for Michael Dukakis and every Democratic nominee since, and presidential candidates win elections if they win the center, and Dukakis, Kerry, and Gore all lost.

But moving on...

It turns out that independents don't seem to be nearly the homogenized group that they're increasingly characterized as.

Sure, there are some disaffected Republicans in their ranks, but that doesn't explain polls that show they're fairly split between the GOP and Democrats.

Quinnipiac University's poll this morning offers a perfect example.

a.  If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for the Republican candidate or for the Democratic candidate in your district?

33% of independents would vote for the Republican candidate; 33% of independents would vote for the Democratic candidate.

b. Do you approve of the way Republicans/Democrats are handling their job in Congress?

Here are results that really rough up the idea that independents are just disaffected, Republican leaners.

More independents approve of the way Democrats are handling themselves in Congress than Republicans. Currently, congressional Republicans get a 19%/70% rating with indies, while Democrats get a 26%/65% rating.

Granted, that's not much better, but it suggests that indies look more fondly on congressional Democrats than Republicans, and that -- more than anything -- suggests they're not just closeted Republicans.

c. Indies look more favorably on the Democratic party than the Republican party.

Yet again, a conventional-wisdom-busting result.

The GOP's fav rating with indies is 23%/54% for -31%, while the Democratic party's fav rating with indies is 31%/47% for -16%, which is a net rating that's nearly twice as strong as Republicans'.

d. Indies like Democrats more than the tea party.

Only 22% of independents support the tea party, while 44% disapprove of it. That -22% net rating is worse than indies' opinions of the Democratic party.

e. Indies think Democrats care about their problems more than Republicans.

47% of indies think the Dems care about their needs, while 49% don't. That's far better than the 35% of indies who think Republicans care about their needs and 60% who don't.

f. Positional issues.

Indies think Democrats would do a better job of handling health care and same-sex marriage, while Republicans would do a better job handling the economy and deficit, taxes, and gun control.

Once again, that suggests that indies are split down the middle on party preference.

CONCLUSION: Ever since the 2012 election wrapped, we've been seeing loads of polls like this wherein Obama's approval rating with indies spiked after his election only to eventually fall. Again, that's not consistent with the characterization of indies as closeted Republicans.

Even more importantly, indies consistently sided with Obama during the fiscal cliff showdown.

So what are we to make of the "independents are generally disaffected Republicans" argument?

My sense is that Mitt Romney's win among independents was so jarring to those who say the GOP doesn't appeal to anyone outside its ranks that, in order to explain that anomaly, the narrative reflexively called them secret Republicans.

But polling, post-election, shows independents are anything but secret Republicans. They are, instead, quite independent and seem to make their political decisions based on issues in a pattern that doesn't conform to the usual GOP vs. Democratic divide.

In other words, independents are independent.