Friday, December 16, 2011

The Radicalism of the Independent Voter

Among those of us who eat up polling data like they're In-N-Out burgers, it can be difficult to pick up on some of the more obscure patterns in the crosstabs. However, there's been a trend in a handful of Public Policy Polling surveys recently that I've found impossible to ignore.

The trend concerns the responses of independent voters to candidates who, like these voters, defy labels. The latest example is a good starting point: in this week's poll of the New Mexico Senate race, PPP asked about a hypothetical faceoff between the two top Democrats in the race and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, currently a long-shot GOP candidate for president. PPP found that, if Johnson switched his ambitions to the upper chamber of Congress, he would draw huge levels of support from independent voters. The advantage (57-19 and 52-30 against Hector Balderas and Martin Heinrich, respectively) would be enough to put this Democratic-leaning Senate race into the tossup column.

We saw this before with a multitude of PPP polls testing Congressman Ron Paul's strength against President Obama, should Paul win the Republican presidential nod. In several states, Paul is the only Republican candidate to lead Obama among independents.

Based on this information and the myth of the independent voter, you would expect Johnson and Paul to be pragmatic, moderate voices known for their ability to work across the aisle. The problem, of course, is that that's not exactly the description that comes to mind. Famously, Johnson and Paul are both rabid libertarians—considered to have the most radical views in the presidential field and thought to be the most shocking (some would say dangerous) choice for the political establishment. It's fascinating, and a bit surprising, that these would be the candidates that most fire up this supposedly centrist voting bloc.

However, we really shouldn't be so surprised. PPP's findings underline two points that are crucial to keep in mind as we head into 2012. The first is the aforementioned myth of the independent voter. In reality, independents do not occupy some sensible middle ground between the two polarized parties. Instead, they are a diverse hodgepodge of voters on all ends of the political spectrum—or, more accurately, on all corners of the political map. Many of them are Democrats or Republicans who just don't like to be labeled. Others are populists who will wantonly swing between liberalism and conservatism from year to year. And yet others are way out there on the fringes of the so-called "mainstream"—including an apparently growing group of disillusioned, anti-government libertarians.

That brings us to the second point: as we know anecdotally from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, voters are angry. This is especially true of independent voters, who don't have a built-in devotion to an established political party (by definition a part of the elite). If independents are looking for someone who will upend what they see as a broken system, they can do little better than Gary Johnson or Ron Paul. In a way, it makes sense for those swinging populists to land on a libertarian (or other third-party candidate) in 2012: they've alternated between Democrats and Republicans in the past, and neither one has worked out for them so far. And as other disaffecteds—such as the college students and first-time voters who stereotypically support Johnson and Paul—come out of the woodwork, they're sure not going to identify with the Ds or Rs when a pollster calls them up.

These voters are the reasons that Johnson and Paul are polling so well for PPP. Pundits can dismiss those types of radical candidates and radical voters all they want, but it would be in favor of a mythical moderate independent who doesn't really exist. In 2012, the angry, and those willing to make radical changes, seem to be the new kids in this bloc. They may not be what we think of when we hear the word "independents," but, truly, they are the most independent-minded voters out there.

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