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Column: Why independent voters don't decide elections

Conventional wisdom in Florida politics says the candidate who wins independent voters will win the election.

Supposedly, independent and no-party-affiliated voters are swing voters who are centrist and carry no preference toward either party. They identify as independent because they find both parties too extreme, or they swing from one political party to the other between elections.

Advocates for open primaries argue that if the growing number of unaffiliated voters were allowed to vote in partisan primaries, it would result in more moderate candidates.

Let's examine the data. In 2012, exit polling indicated that 93 percent of Democrats voted for Barack Obama, and 92 percent of Republicans supported Mitt Romney. This is the norm in modern elections. Parties are highly cohesive and ideologically sorted, and partisans rarely split their tickets between parties down the ballot.

Intuitively, this seems to increase the importance of independent voters, particularly given the well-documented increase in Florida of voters registering without party affiliation.

This idea does not hold up to scrutiny. The data show that these independent voters are not much different from their nominally partisan counterparts — and are not swing voters.

The 2012 American National Elections Study, an ongoing effort by Stanford University and the University of Michigan that measures the attitudes of the American voter across elections, found that self-identified independent voters who "leaned" toward the Democratic Party gave Barack Obama 87 percent of their vote. Republican-leaning independents gave Romney an identical 87 percent share. Even though these voters self-identified as independent or registered without party affiliation, they voted like loyal partisans.

These leaners make up an overwhelming majority of independent voters. Only 5 percent of the electorate in 2012 was truly "independent."

Independent voters gave Romney 54 percent of the vote. These independent voters did not decide the election, and their preferences were wildly different from the final vote. According to ANES data, independent voters in two of the last three presidential elections voted for the losing candidate.

The data suggest that the increase in independent voters is coming at the expense of voters registering as Republicans. This explains why Republicans can win the independent vote by significant margins yet still lose elections.

Many avoid identifying with a party not because they view the party as too extreme, but because they perceive it as too mushy. A voter who sympathizes with the tea party may vote a straight Republican ticket year after year but will identify as an independent when asked because she perceives the Republican establishment as insufficiently conservative.

The University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy research shows a majority of independent leaners have political opinions aligned with the Republican or Democratic parties.

The study used data from the Cooperative Congressional Elections Study, which surveyed 55,400 voters. The results were nearly identical between both parties, showing independents were often more ideologically extreme than registered party members. This indicates that instead of being an independent because the party was too extreme, many identify as independent because their party is not ideological enough.

This indicates that opening party primaries and allowing unaffiliated voters to participate might not produce more moderate nominees, but potentially more ideologically extreme nominees.

We think a better system is to keep party primaries but to change how they are run. We strongly recommend that the Constitutional Revision Commission or the Legislature implement an instant runoff when no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary. Under an instant runoff system for primaries, a voter would rank multiple candidates in order of preference instead of selecting a single candidate. These choices would be tabulated until a candidate achieved a majority. An instant runoff would force candidates to appeal to a broader swath of voters, driving candidates to the center.

Until 20 years ago, Florida required a runoff when a candidate running in a party primary didn't achieve a majority of the vote. This was unfortunately changed to a mere plurality.

Three of Florida's greatest statesmen — Lawton Chiles, Reubin Askew and Bob Graham — all finished second in their primaries only to win their runoffs with a majority.

What a concept: majority rule in our democracy.

Barry Edwards is a political consultant and strategist based in St. Petersburg. Greg C. Truax of Tampa is producing and directing a documentary on climate change and sea level rise in Florida. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Why independent voters don't decide elections 01/15/16 [Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2016 3:58pm]
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