Where the Missing Middle Went

Survey says: Maybe the dead center of American politics need not be

In 1992, the political scientist Raymond E. Wolfinger of the University of California (Berkeley), along with five of his students, published The Myth of the Independent Voter, a book that posed a challenge to—well, to people like me. For some time, I've been saying that the key to American politics is in the center. Independents make up about a third of the electorate, yet are neglected by the two increasingly extreme major parties. Whichever party manages to dominate the center without losing hold of its partisan base will be the majority party, possibly for years to come. Or so I've claimed.

One problem with my view is this: Party leaders aren't idiots. Why would they neglect this vast independent center if it is up for grabs? Various answers suggest themselves (for example, primary elections are dominated by fierce partisans who prefer extreme candidates), but another answer is possible. Perhaps independents are not really up for grabs.

Wolfinger and his colleagues took a closer look at independents in presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, using data from the University of Michigan's biennial American National Election Studies. Like many polls, the ANES survey asks respondents to identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, or independents; but then it goes on to ask Republicans and Democrats whether their party identification is strong or not very strong, and to ask independents whether they think of themselves as closer to the Republicans or the Democrats. It thus shows seven degrees of partisanship, instead of the usual three groups.

Mining the ANES data, Wolfinger and company found that most people who identify themselves as independents are not uncommitted swing voters. Rather, "they are largely closet Democrats and Republicans." Indeed, they vote much as weak partisans do. They may be independent identifiers, but they are mostly not independent voters.

Two polarizing presidents later, is that still true? With the help of Mark Hiller and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program (where I am a guest scholar), I took an updated look at the ANES data for presidential elections through 2004. The charts included here illustrate the findings.

The chart below shows how Americans have categorized their party ties since 1952. The deeper the color, the stronger the partisanship. Pure independents are the white band in the middle.

The first finding that pops out is the basic stability of the country's partisan structure over more than five decades. The data show no major disruptions, though the triumphs of LBJ in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 are evident. The number of true independents has grown, but only to 10 percent of the electorate. They remain the smallest of factions.

Despite their party's current gloom, Democrats (strong and weak) still outnumber Republicans (strong and weak) by 33 percent to 28 percent, as of 2004. And many weak Democrats have been replaced by independents who lean Democratic, so the blue universe—everyone who either identifies or leans Democratic—has shrunk less than it otherwise might have.

Republicans, however, have narrowed the gap. The red universe has expanded, mostly at the expense of weak Democrats. Moreover, Republicans, though outnumbered, punch above their weight. The reason is turnout. In the ANES surveys, Republicans report voting at higher rates than Democrats, and strong partisans report voting at higher rates than weak partisans—both tendencies that favor Republicans. The turnout rates for partisans and leaners have not changed much since the 1960s. But something that has changed—a lot—is the voting rate of true independents. Their turnout has plummeted by about 30 percentage points since the late 1950s.

The chart below suggests why. It shows the percentage of people in each category of partisanship who told the ANES in 2004 that one of the parties represented their views "reasonably well." Think of it as an alienation index. The more partisan you say you are, the more likely you are to feel that one of the parties speaks for you. Fewer than half of true independents feel represented by a party, which presumably is why their turnout is so low. They don't like what's being offered.

Notice that the graph is not symmetrical. At every level of partisanship, the red universe feels better represented than does the blue universe. Republicans, it appears, have the stronger and more appealing brand. They are doing a better job of explaining what it means to be a Republican and why voters should care. Democrats seem to have a "mushy brand" problem. They are Chevrolet to Republicans' BMW or Jaguar.

That hunch is supported by the fact (not illustrated here) that Republicans are more ideological than Democrats—or, from an alienated independent's point of view, more extreme. By a margin of about 20 percentage points, Republicans (strong and weak) are more likely to call themselves conservative than Democrats (strong and weak) are to call themselves liberal.

Put those facts together, and they add up to Republicans' making up in passion and turnout what they lack in numbers. Meanwhile, true independents, most of whom identify themselves as moderates, sulk at home on Election Day, thus diminishing their influence and deepening their funk. A sorry state.

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