Saturday, May 14, 2011

Are "Independents" Just Dumb?

In survey research, we worry a lot about no-opinion opinions.  That is, respondents who give an opinion without really having one, which is related (but distinct from) uninformed opinion.  And in that theme, there's this CBS News story that wonders who the heck are these "independents" that everyone is so worried about.

Why do we care about independents?  A CBS column by history professor Michael Kazin notes:
No group in American politics gets more respect than independent voters. Pundits and reporters probe what these allegedly moderate citizens think about this issue and that candidate, major party strategists seek the golden mean of messaging that will attract independents to their camp and/or alienate them from the opposing one. Presidential nominees and aides struggle to come up with phrases and settings that will soothe or excite them. But what if millions of independents are really just a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
Elections, especially presidential elections, often settle on the swing voters, the self-styled "independents" who can be nudged, moved, shifted, or shoved toward one candidate or away from another.  Kazin notes that these "independents" tend to be accepting of a mishmash of political positions from the left and the right, from the Dems or from the GOPers.  As he puts it: "To a sympathetic eye, this result might connote a pleasant openness to contrasting opinions, perhaps a desire to give each group of partisans the benefit of the doubt. But I think it demonstrates a basic thoughtlessness."

This is nothing new.  Philip Converse wrote about this in 1964 in his seminal piece, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Without getting too PhDweebish, Converse pointed out the inconsistencies in our ideological belief systems.  Later, folks dived into this and established, long ago, that a huge chunk of the American electorate (the "independents") held highly inconsistent beliefs.  Kazin reminds us of the infamous Lippmann/Dewey debates from the 1920s about whether the public was capable of understanding politics. 

It's an excellent piece.


Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Typical vomit from partisans and people who are stuck seeing only in black and white / red and blue. There is a whole range of positions you can take on any issue. Centrists are closer to the right on some issues, and closer to the left on others, and there are left and right leaners, just as their are lefties and righties who lean towards the center.

Centrists and moderates aren't fickle, we're just not given choices we like very often, so we have to decide on which is the one we can vote for that is just better than the other, lesser evil or just not vote. Same is the case for the really extreme folks who are out in the super fringe ideological range.

Solomon Kleinsmith
Rise of the Center

Hollander said...

As a radical moderate myself, I lean toward that position, not thinking much of loonies on the left or wackos on the right.

But one of the points of the research I found interesting was "independents" tend to vote far less often. That makes sense. Party identification continues to be, from the 1950s, the strongest predictor of voting and political participation.

A lot of self-described "independents" are really just folks who don't care one way or the other. Apathetics. I'd guess of those who call themselves "independent," maybe half of them fall into this category.