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The crucial political question, of course, is not how all of these partisans and independents identify themselves, but how they vote. The following chart provides the answer, for the five most recent presidential races in which no major independent candidate was running (so you can assume that a low vote for one presidential candidate equals a high vote for the other).
Over almost 30 years, the picture is once again strikingly stable. And it is not ambiguous. What Wolfinger found in 1992 is still true: Independent leaners vote like weak partisans. Only true independents split their vote or swing.
A closer look at this chart reveals a few interesting details. First, the Democratic universe used to vote less loyally than did the Republican, but by 2004 the loyalty gap had pretty much closed. For that, Democrats can thank the Great Divider, President Bush.
Second, and more surprising: Democratic-leaning independents are usually more partisan in their voting behavior than are weak Democrats. Or perhaps, on reflection, this is not so surprising after all. Remember, some components of the traditionally Democratic base, such as union members and blacks, tend to be socially conservative, while many college-educated independents turn up their noses at partisan labels but are consistently liberal in outlook. (As the chart shows, Republicans once exhibited a similar confusion, but by 2004 they had aligned party affiliation with ideology. In time, Democrats will likewise sort themselves out.)
Finally, look at true independents. Since 1984, they have moved toward the Democratic column by a whopping 30 points, with an especially large lurch toward Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Yet, over the same period, independents have grown less liberal and more moderate. Why, then, are they turning blue? The fierceness of the Republican base seems to have repelled them. Polling in 2005, after the ANES data came in, has shown independents' support for Bush and the Republicans continuing to crumble at an alarming pace. Republicans' edge-oriented strategy has not come without cost in the center.
Republicans might say, So what? With their small share of the population and smaller share of turnout, true independents are in no position to swing any but a close election. To judge by the ANES data, the idea of a quiet mass of independent swing voters waiting to be mobilized is the pipe dream of wishful moderates. Like me.
Or maybe not. Some independents surely are "closet partisans," as Wolfinger and his colleagues say. But others are, as it were, closet moderates, holding their noses while voting for the ideologically nearer of two distastefully distant extremes.
What we do not know is how they might vote—or how many more of them might vote—if the general election ballot offered them a major-party candidate with broad centrist appeal: say, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who so galvanized independents in 2000. Had he won the Republican nomination, those independents might well have given him a thumping victory over Vice President Gore.
Remember, too, that public opinion in the center has been unled and disorganized for years. As Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Junichiro Koizumi have so impressively shown in Israel and Japan, vigorous leadership can create a dynamic center as well as mobilize one.
But without centrist candidates, there can be no centrist voters. For now, Republicans have the advantage of a strong brand and a passionate following. But the Democrats are winning in the center even as their support among their partisans firms up. And it is they, with their large numbers and lagging motivation, who have the greater potential to make gains in turnout and commitment. If the Democrats ever manage to revive their brand, watch out.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.