Independent voters may replace battleground states as the key indicator to watch in this year’s presidential election.
Voters who weren't registered as either Republicans or Democrats have contributed to the surge in presidential primary voting. In closed primary states, such as Oregon, they have switched registration so they could vote for a presidential candidate.
Non-establishment candidates, such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, have benefited most from this tide of independent voters, which is the largest voting bloc in the U.S. electorate. According to the Pew Research Center, independents make up 39 percent of total voter registration, compared to 32 percent as Democrats and 23 percent as Republicans.
Gallup has conducted extensive research on who makes up this group of non-affiliated voters and found that a common strain is disaffection with both major political parties in America. Within the independent bloc are voters who lean Democratic or Republican. The rest are true swing voters.
As Trump has shown after he became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee following the Indiana primary, a political party’s base tends to unify. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton – who appears mathematically certain to win her party’s nomination – is still competing in primaries with Sanders, with the next big test coming June 7 in California. Chances are good that Democrats who support Sanders will swivel to support Clinton in the general election when she is the nominee.
That leaves open the question of who will appeal the most to independents. Trump has demonstrated his appeal to independents, especially white working class males. Sanders’ surprising political viability is the result of melding votes from the Democratic Party’s progressive left wing with strong support from independents, especially young people.
Pew Research shows nearly half of 18 to 33-year-olds are registered as independents. Sanders has ushered a lot of Millennials into Democratic voter registration this year and it will be Clinton’s political task to keep them there and win over their support by November.
NPR reported earlier this year that independents are among the most upset voters in America. They recoil from what they see as political dysfunction in Washington and want to see fundamental change. Older independents are upset at international trade deals, which they believe cost them their good-paying jobs. Younger independents are frustrated by the high cost of college and rising student debt.
When activated, independent voters make a difference. NPR points to the 2012 presidential election in Colorado in which GOP nominee Mitt Romney received more Republican votes than Barack Obama received Democratic votes. Obama carried the state because of heavy voting by independents, especially Millennials.
National polls indicate Trump and Clinton are in a virtual dead heat. Electoral wizards can illustrate how the 2016 presidential election will boil down to a few battleground states, such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia. However, the impact of independents on the race is likely to expand the battleground to more states, including some improbable ones.
Republican strategists believe usual Democratic stalwarts in presidential elections – such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota – could be in play. Democrats think there is a chance for their candidate in unlikely places like Georgia and Arizona. Independent voters already have shown they can tilt an election outcome in states like Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico and Iowa. In the end, even more states could be up for grabs, depending on who can nail down the votes of political independents.
The 2016 election cycle – which has already ground on for a long time and still has almost six months to go – has been anything but typical. Trump vanquished 16 political rivals and buffaloed the GOP establishment by running an earned media campaign. He said outlandish things and tweeted insults that, in the words for a Ted Cruz campaign aide, “won the day.” Sanders has adopted the role as pied piper of a political revolution, drawing huge crowds to hear him rail against a rigged economy and political system.
The Trump and Sanders campaign styles, combined with some common policy positions on trade and foreign involvement, have aroused political independents. That’s why some Sanders supporters claim he is better positioned to battle Trump than Clinton, who emphasizes her experience and detailed policy positions.
Confusing things even more, Trump and Clinton have historically high negative ratings. They are even likely to go down as Trump and Clinton have already begun trading blows and posting attack ads. Clinton points out Trump’s business failures and brands him a bully. Trump dredges up past sexual scandals involving Bill Clinton and accuses Hillary of being an “enabler.”
For some independent voters, Trump’s brash braggadocio is his brand, and he’s the kind of disruptive force who could make real change. For others, his race baiting and loose talk about nuclear weapons are too alarming to allow his finger anywhere near the red button.
Many independents agree with Republicans that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy. But others may be repelled by Trump’s controversial references to women and attracted to Clinton’s potential to crack the highest glass ceiling in the world.
Establishment and moderate Republicans will press Trump to tone down his rhetoric on tearing up trade deals and banning Muslims. Sanders and Democratic progressives will push Clinton to be more vocal about confronting Wall Street and embracing ways to make college more affordable.
The red and blue political bases will get behind their respective party standard-bearers. How independents split their votes will determine who becomes the next president.