The Star recently published guest commentaries by Jacqueline Salit and Greg Orman arguing that voters are disgusted with the two major parties and primed to elect political independents. But their arguments are at odds with data. Americans today are more partisan than ever, and there is no evidence that independent candidates will succeed electorally anytime soon.
Yes, polling shows that more voters today identify as independent than in the 1950s. But the number of independents has remained flat in recent decades. Gallup’s September 2017 monthly average showed that 40 percent of Americans were independent — the exact same as in September 2007 and statistically indistinguishable from 37 percent in September 1997. That’s not growth.
Salit and Orman also overstate the number of true independents. In fact, most independents act like partisans. They may call themselves independents, but actually lean to one of the major parties, and in policy attitudes and voting behavior they look like overt partisans. These are largely not moderates yearning for centrist politics. The same Gallup data Orman cites shows that in September 2017, 92 percent of Americans were overt partisans or independent leaners, unmoved from 93 percent in September 2007.
That remaining 8 percent of pure independents are not the enlightened few. Compared to partisans and independent leaners, pure independents on average are the least politically knowledgeable, attentive to news, interested in politics and likely to vote. Ironically, the Americans theoretically most open to electing independents are also the least likely to care about an independent’s campaign.
Sure, swing voters still exist and tip elections, but ticket splitting is at historical lows. More than ever, Americans vote party, not person. The perennially poor performance of independent candidates reflects this.
For example, take Orman’s 2014 campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. Despite intense anti-Washington sentiment, an unpopular 34-year incumbent and no Democrat running, Orman still lost by 11 percent and underperformed polls that showed him winning. Orman also performed worse than the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who lost by 4 percent that year. Nothing suggests that Orman would perform any better in a three-person race against viable Republican and Democratic candidates. In fact, the opposite is likely true.
In recent Kansas elections, core Democratic and Republican voters have made up about 75 percent of voters cumulatively. To win a three-way race, Orman needs to both capture the remaining 25 percent — a nearly impossible task since many of those voters have party leanings — and also attract strong partisans.
Orman’s 2014 vote was essentially a smaller version of the Democrat’s gubernatorial vote. There was little evidence of unique “Orman voters” who did not already lean Democratic. While many Republicans may not prefer someone like Kris Kobach, recent elections show that most voters still vote loyally for their party. Again, take Orman. Pre-election polls accurately predicted his share of Democratic and independent voters in 2014. They also projected that about 25 percent of Republicans would vote Orman, but the exit poll showed that he won only 13 percent of Republicans — less than the 19 percent of Republicans who voted Democratic for governor.
While the idea of an independent savior, free of special interest influence and unburdened by party allegiance, is undoubtedly appealing (and likely explains why independents typically poll much better than they actually perform), there is scant evidence that independent candidates will see electoral success anytime soon. Many voters gripe about the parties, but have little follow-through in supporting independents.
Until then, the question for Orman is whether he can be more than just a spoiler guaranteeing a Republican win. Should he enter the race, his gamble to be the independent who defies these trends will shape the future of Kansas for years to come.
Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas specializing in American elections and political behavior.