Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
As independent voters go, so goes the nation.
That’s a political truism backed up by data. In our polarized era, independent voters provide much of the swing vote between the two parties.
It makes sense: There are more self-identified independent voters than either Republicans or Democrats, according to a recent Gallup Poll. And there are currently nine states where registered independent voters outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans — from much of New England to North Carolina to Colorado, Oregon, Arkansas and even Alaska. Their numbers have grown precisely as the two parties have gotten more focused on playing to the base, a dynamic The Washington Post describes as a side effect of divisive politics.
So which way does it look like independent voters will swing in the 2022 midterm elections? Well, according to the most recent CNN poll, 48% of independents say they’ll vote for Republicans, while 45% say they’ll vote for Democrats. While this finding is within the poll’s margin of error, it suggests Republicans will have an edge on Tuesday.
It’s a decided shift from the 2018 midterm elections, where CNN exit polls showed 54% of independent voters supporting Democrats over Donald Trump’s Republicans, which led to the loss of 40 GOP seats in the House of Representatives that year.
This independents-to-Democrats trend continued in 2020, when again 54% of independent voters in exit polls backed Joe Biden over Trump for President.
But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back. After all, in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among independent voters by a 6-point margin.
The movement of independent voters toward Republicans was a continuation from the Obama-era midterm elections: with a 12-point margin in 2014 and a 16-point “shellacking” in the tea party wave election of 2010 in exit polls.
That reversal came after independent voters backed Barack Obama over the GOP’s John McCain by 8 points in 2008 and sealed the deal for Democrats in 2006 when they took back the House while winning over independent voters 57% to 39% in exit polls.
The pattern is clear: Independent voters provide the key swing vote in American politics. But that view may come as a surprise to many academics and professional partisans who spend much of their time between elections arguing that truly independent voters don’t really exist — they are just “leaners” — essentially closet partisans who don’t want to admit it.
As a result, in many polls, people who initially self-identify as independent voters are often asked a second time to fold their numbers into one of the existing two parties.
But this effort to dilute the true weight of independent voters ignores the broader trend. Independent voters used to be an afterthought in American politics — and now majorities of millennials and Generation Z voters identify as independents. They’re more representative of the overall American electorate than either Republican or Democratic voters — which also means that they are not a monolith.
There are some independents who are conservative and others who are liberal, but the majority are in the moderate mainstream — less motivated by an ideological policy agenda than a desire to decrease polarization by counterbalancing the party in power, especially in times of one-party rule over Washington — as The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. broke down in a column Sunday.
This instinct that divided government will provide a check and balance on partisan excess is less true in the post-truth, post-Trump era, where GOP moderates account for less than a quarter of their party. But this dynamic does help account for the independent Senate candidacy of Evan McMullin in Utah to challenge incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee — giving residents of that dependably conservative state their first competitive race in decades.
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America’s polarized, hyperpartisan politics are the prime driver of our division and dysfunction. The rise of independent voters represents a healthy pushback against that dynamic, a demand for something different.
To the extent red and blue states can still deliver election surprises — while purple states drive control of the US Senate and presidential contests, tracking independent voters closely will offer an insight into the margin of victory and perhaps a more hopeful vision of our political future.