The power of independents in New Hampshire and the nation (opinion)

I’m talking about the rise of independent voters — those folks who refuse to align with either party. If you listen to professional partisans, you’d think that independent voters are rarer than unicorns. But in New Hampshire, they make up roughly 42% of the state’s registered voters, outnumbering both registered Republicans and Democrats. And thanks to the Granite State’s open primary system, independent voters can cast a ballot for whoever they believe is the best candidate in either party. What a concept, right?!
It might surprise you to find out that independent voters actually make up a plurality nationwide as well — rising up to 45% of Americans in the latest Gallup poll, while self-identified Democrats and Republicans sit at 27% each.
But professional partisans love to dismiss and denigrate independent voters. They ignore the fact that their numbers have risen from 33% in 1988 while the two parties’ share has declined over the past three decades as they have grown more polarized.

Independent voters are not a monolith but they have proactively chosen not to identify with the dominant two parties in our politics — and their opinions usually track national opinions more closely than either Democrats or Republicans alone.

This makes sense at a time when the two parties are more ideologically and geographically divided than at any time in our recent history. For example, independents who lean center-right are more likely to be libertarian in their beliefs on issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

So it’s not a surprise that the libertarian congressman from Michigan, Justin Amash, chose to leave the Republican Party and declare his independence on July 4th of last year.

“Modern politics is trapped in a partisan death spiral, but there is an escape,” he wrote. “Most Americans are not rigidly partisan and do not feel well represented by either of the two major parties … Preserving liberty means telling the Republican Party and the Democratic Party that we’ll no longer let them play their partisan game at our expense.”
While that’s heresy in the hyper-partisan culture of Congress, it sounds like common sense in places like the “Live Free or Die” State. In fact, New Hampshire is one of nine states where registered independents outnumbered members of either party in 2018. And the presidential candidate who connects with independent voters is vastly more likely to win the general election in November.
But what does this mean for the New Hampshire primary? For candidates like Pete Buttigieg, who had made outreach to independents and what he likes to call “future former Republicans” a core part of his campaign, it leaves him well-positioned.
Yet the longtime neighboring state US Senator Bernie Sanders can boast that he declared himself an independent for decades — albeit one who rejected formal membership in the Democratic Party because he felt they were not far-left enough. (It’s worth noting that the other independent senator, Maine’s Angus King, represents the more moderate mainstream fiscally-conservative but socially-liberal strain of independents nationwide).
Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 by more than 20-points — and independent voters provided much of that margin, going for Sanders nearly 3-to1 over Hillary Clinton. One key metric to watch this week is whether Sanders will under-perform those margins this time around.
Klobuchar draws crowds in New Hampshire as she hopes for a surge in Tuesday's primary

On the Republican side of the aisle, New Hampshire is one of the few states where Republicans have not blocked a challenger to Donald Trump. The last challenger standing is Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts and 2016 Libertarian Party Vice-Presidential Nominee. While Trump won the GOP primary here in 2016, Weld is a candidate tailor-made to appeal to New Hampshire independents and the few remaining centrist-Republicans.

One open question is how many Republicans and independents will turn out to oppose President Trump in this primary — and what percent threshold will make that a sign of weakness. Trump has succeeded in corralling his party’s base and elected officials through his bullying style — but it’s been at the expense of many policies that Republicans have said they supported for decades. In the Northeast, that’s traditionally been defined by a commitment to fiscally conservative approach to deficit and the debt. It’s worth noting that last month, the CBO announced that the deficit would top $1 trillion this year under President Trump while the national debt has topped $22 trillion. If Weld gets a significant percentage of votes against President Trump from Republicans and independents in the GOP primary, it would exceed expectations and expose the President’s underlying weakness in the center of the electorate.
New Hampshire is a swing state that Hillary Clinton won by a razor thin margin in 2016. But Trump won independent voters nationally 46% to 42% over Hillary Clinton, according to CNN exit polls, with 12% voting third party.
In the 2018 midterms, however, independent voters swung toward Democrats by a stunning 12-point margin, according to CNN exit polls, providing a crucial boost to the blue wave election that helped Democrats retake the House.

The one thing we know about 2020 is that independent voters will remain a crucial swing voter bloc, hotly contested by candidates from two parties that spend most of their time in Washington pretending that independent voters don’t exist. In fact, there are more independents than hard partisans in either party — and that’s a hopeful sign in a country that seems hopelessly divided.

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