What Independent Voters Did on Election Day and Why

What Independent Voters Did on Election Day and Why

The Uses of Independent Power
by Jacqueline Salit

Nov. 15, 2018

Independent voters came out in force, grabbed the system by the lapels and gave it a good shake. Independents comprised 30% of the electorate, up from 28% in 2014.  In all, almost 34 million non-aligned voters cast ballots.  The increase in the number of independents who voted as compared with the last midterms was 38%, whereas Democrat/Republican voting rose by 25%.  While the parties were dedicating themselves to “bringing out their base,” independents chose to be a major part of the equation in 2018.

Suffice it to say that independents are swinging between cycles of disruption and cycles of stabilization, all the while searching for systemic changes that will take us to new ground.  Independent rather than partisan ground. That’s the essence of the post-election story, which actually began in late October, two weeks before Election Day.

What did these unpredictable independents do?  They broke for Democratic candidates by 12 points.  In the last midterms they broke for Republicans by 12 points.  In other words, there was a 24-point swing over four years’ time.  The voters who elected Barack Obama in 2008, then took away the Democrat Congressional majority in 2010, backed the GOP and then Trump through 2016, changed the make-up of the federal government yet again.  They also put a number of governorships in the blue column.

The impact?  A check on the White House and a two-party balance on Capitol Hill for the first time in 8 years.  But there’s more.  There was a sweep for key political reform initiatives in six states including nonpartisan redistricting in Michigan, Colorado and Missouri with votes of between 61% and 71%. Restoring felon voting rights won in Florida with 64%.  Remarkably, the typical drop off in totals from top of the ticket voting to initiative and referendum voting did not occur.  In Michigan, 96% of those who voted for Governor also voted on Proposition 2.  In Colorado, 98% voted at the top and in the reform contests.

In Florida, where the results are still being counted for Governor and Senator at the time of this writing, votes on the felon rights question totaled less than 5,000 fewer, and the results were decisive.

Though none of the official exit polling probed the voter makeup for the reform proposals, the turnout by independents combined with an across-the-board clamor for systemic change drove these victories. The percentages of “yes” votes rival those of the term limits movement of the 1990’s, which swept every state that allowed statewide initiatives by totals as high as 77%.

For now, independent voters can be pleased with the results.  Not because we want to be Democrats, but because overall we felt more aligned with sending their candidates to congress.  Many independents had the additional intent of defeating one-party rule and containing President Trump.

Independent candidates, meanwhile, had a tougher cycle.  While Angus King and Bernie Sanders—self-identified independent Senators from Maine and Vermont respectively who caucus with the Democrats—were re-elected, the new wave of independent candidates were shut out.  Statewide independent candidates in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Georgia, and New Mexico had significant and highly qualified independent candidates, but they did not win, instead polling between 2% and 15% of the vote.

The new wave statewide independent candidate who came closest to getting elected was Steve Poizner, running for Insurance Commissioner in California, who came within two percentage points.  It is worth noting that California is a nonpartisan top two system state (the reform propelled by Schwarzenegger, the Independent Voter Project, Independent Voice and a coalition of reform forces) with a system that eliminates the so-called “spoiler” factor, which Democrats played this year for all it was worth.  In New York, two worthy tickets won ballot status for new parties, the Serve America Movement (SAM) and the Libertarian Party.

In many respects, the election produced the standard outcome of midterms where the party in the White House loses control of one or both houses.  If there was a wave, it was neither blue nor red.  Nor was it purple, the color sometimes used to denote independents, as if we are a blend of the existing parties or ideologies, rather than something altogether different.  It might have been an independent or reform wave, in which voters of many persuasions used the tools they currently have available to chart a different course, even as they took steps to create some new ones.

Naturally, the Democrats and Republicans are now analyzing and evaluating their outcomes, their strategies and their prospects for 2020, with prospective candidates jockeying for position.  Very little energy will be given by anyone to governing in a productive way.  The independents, while neither a party nor a unified force, have produced a range of leaders and power centers in our “becoming” movement.  These leaders, activists and organizers need to be talking with one another now, honestly looking at what strategies worked and what didn’t, exploring how to strengthen and develop our movement and how best to use the ample power independents demonstrated in this election.

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