Myth of the Myth of the Independent Voter

A popular belief in voter psychology is that there is no such thing as a true independent voter:  everyone has some partisan proclivities and that they will act according to this proclivity.  This is bullshit.  Every (usual) voter has some partisan proclivity and they will vote according to this proclivity, but not everyone votes in most elections.  By definition, these non-voters see very little difference between the two (or more) sides in the election.  While Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, say, would look nothing alike to the “usual” voters, to the “not-so-usual” voters, they are basically same people, who look alike, dress alike, and talk alike.  The only problem, electorally speaking, is that the “not-so-usual” voters don’t vote in large numbers, so their impact on most elections is limited.

Why these voters might go missing–and why they might show up sometimes–does not have an obvious explanation:  they are actuated by impulses different from the usual political dividing lines.   The so-called “missing white voters” phenomenon attempted to get at this phenomenon with, naturally, mistaken implications.  Because many of these voters voted for Ronald Reagan and were actively courted by Richard Nixon, Republican pollsters assumed that they were naturally “Republican” voters who would tip the balance only if they showed up.  They conveniently forgot that they were called “Reagan Democrats” for a reason, and that many of them voted reliably for various Democratic Congressional candidates for decades, even while they were voting for Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bush the elder and even Ross Perot.  For these voters, the elimination of many old time Democratic House candidates and the subsequent homogenization of the Democratic Party unintentionally (presumably) brought by 1994 elections constituted a major turning point:  they were not Republicans, but they were not exactly fond of the transforming Democratic Party either.  So the first patterns of these missing white voters show up as early as 1996, depending on how hard you look–and are willing to extrapolate from feint signs, not something one is advised to do statistically–although the pattern intensifies until it becomes clearly visible only in 2010-14 elections (more detailed numbers, with statistical analyses, to be shown later, once I’m done running the numbers…)

Put differently, “the missing white voters,” remain a significant electoral force for altogether different reasons than what fascinates the Republicans:  these are the voters who could swing the control of House to the Democrats and force the Republicans to moderate, by making the elections more competitive in presently “safe” Republican districts, if the Democrats can somehow make an appeal to them.

There are signs that at least some in the Democratic Party might be getting this, as this  post on Washington Monthly indicates.  #2 and #5 of the reasons they list for why Sanders might be the better candidate for the Democrats flatly contradict each other.  If #2 is true, there are no “rebel” voters who might ditch political orthodoxy.  The reason such rebel voters exist in the first place is because, as far as they are concerned, Obama and Romney are the same people and that they’d show up only if they get something that is sufficiently different from the “usual suspects” and if they are sufficiently unsatisfied with the political status quo.  To them, Hillary Clinton is just another Republicrat who all look alike.  To the usual voters, to whom Democrats and Republicans look completely different, this possibility is downright unthinkable and as such, both Sanders and Trump, along with their supporters, make no sense.

To the degree that many voters vote the same party downstream as the presidential candidates they choose, both Sanders and Trump pose interesting prospects for their respective parties.  The “missing white voters” have been the bane of the Republicans in presidential elections:  even when they do well in House elections, they do so because so few voters turn up in their “safe” districts.  The turnout in safe Republican districts in 2012, for example, was lower by as much as 20-25% compared to similarly safe Democratic districts by my estimate (numbers to be supplied when I’m done with the general analysis).  Republican House candidates thus win with relatively few votes while the Democratic presidential coattail brings out additional voters mostly where they are not needed.  So Republicans capture a large House majority with an oddly small voteshare but are uncompetitive for presidential elections.  Much of this has to be due to the “missing white voter” phenomenon:  neither party’s presidential candidates just don’t appeal to them enough.  If the Republicans get a candidate who can bring them out, they will be competitive for the White House.  If the Democrats get a candidate who can do the same, the Democrats gain a reasonable shot at capturing the House.  Sanders and Trump offer this prospect for each party.

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