Women didn’t change their minds very much. Nor did men, for that matter. Age, race and marital status didn’t have much of an impact either, when it came to the voter group shifts that got Donald Trump elected in an upset in 2016 and then handily defeated by Joe Biden in 2020.
Independent voters, however, made a dramatic and history-changing change: After voting for Trump by a 4-percentage-point margin in 2016, they favored Biden at the ballot box last year by a 13-point margin, with 54% of self-identified independents voting for the Democrat and 41%, for the defeated incumbent.
Further, exit polling indicates that Biden secured victories in the critical states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia because of independent voters. In Georgia, there is evidence that the up-for-grabs voter group secured the Democrats” critical, narrow control of the Senate by providing the pivotal votes to Sen. Ralph Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff.
Independent and unaffiliated voters are having a moment. And this time, it appears that the moment is something more enduring, as those with no major party affiliation have increasing control over the fates of Democrats and Republicans seeking office.
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“We are at something of an inflection point,” says Jacqueline Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org, noting that self-identified independents are inching toward being a plurality to an out-and-out majority of American voters. Gallup, which tracks party identification among voters, found that fully half of Americans in January called themselves independent Democrats and Republicans each comprised a fourth of voters in that survey.
“You’re seeing swings, which to me indicate this is a force which is not governed by the same ideological and partisan categories that are normally used to define the electorate,” she adds. “That’s pretty significant and substantial, given that this is a two-party system and the whole political culture and political process is governed by two-partyism and partyism in general.”
It’s not about the creation of a third party, experts say. The last time a third-party candidate was a legitimate contender was in the 1990s, when businessman and deficit hawk Ross Perot ran on a Reform Party line. His message – anti-establishment and heavily focused on reducing the national debt – resonated with fed-up voters, but Perot ultimately could not succeed in a system that relies on a two-party approach.
But the Perot candidacy had an impact – it led lawmakers, at least for a while, to address the national debt. Now, experts say, independent voters are powerful not because they can throw support behind a third-party candidate but because they can force Democratic and Republican candidates to pay attention to their concerns.
“People who are going independent are not looking for a third party. They’re looking for an end to party politics.”
“People who are going independent are not looking for a third party. They’re looking for an end to party politics,” says John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, a group that advocates for allowing individuals to vote in primaries even if they are not members of a political party. “They don’t connect the dots.”
Opdycke points to the case of Chloe Maxmin, a 20-something liberal and environmental activist from Maine who sought to defeat the GOP state Senate Republican leader in his deep red district. She succeeded last year – not because of a shift in party ID but because she talked personally to voters about their economic struggles in a way that was not defined by party, he says.
That’s because when independent voters are asked if they “lean” Democratic or Republican, most tend to choose one or the other. But Ali likens that to a desperately hungry person who is offered a rotten tomato or an overripe banana: “They’re going to choose one or the other,” because those are the only real options they have.
Independents see the major parties as “self-interested, as opposed to looking out for the best interests of the country, that they’re looking to re-elect themselves. People are less connected to them than ever,” Ali says.
Voting trend numbers back him up: Independent voters were pretty closely divided on the choice between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, favoring the Democrat by a razor-thin margin. They liked Barack Obama in 2008 – then flipped to Republican Mitt Romney four years later.
From 2016 to 2020, the change was bigger than that of any other major voter group. Aside from the 17-point swing nationally, voters in critical battlegrounds made the difference in close races.
Trump won Michigan independents by 6 percentage points in 2016; Biden took them by 6 points in 2020. In Wisconsin, Trump went from winning independents by 10 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton to losing them to Biden by 12 percentage points. In Pennsylvania, a state where Trump won independents by 7 percentage points in 2016, the voter group went for Biden by 8 percentage points in 2020.
Biden picked up two new battleground states for Democrats – Arizona and Georgia – also by winning over independents. Trump won Arizona independents by 3 percentage points in 2016. Biden won the group by 9 percentage points in 2020, when a Democratic nominee won the state’s 11 Electoral College votes for the first time since 1996 and only the second time since 1948.
And in Georgia, independents arguably not only helped seal Biden’s victory – he took the independent vote by 9 points compared to 2016, when Trump won that vote by 11 percentage points – but secured Democratic control of the Senate as well. In excruciatingly close runoffs, both Warnock and Ossoff won the independent vote by 4 percentage points over their GOP opponents.
Nevada and Colorado – two other swing states – also have strong and growing ranks of independent and unaffiliated voters. More than 240,000 Colorado voters have switched their party affiliations since 2014, The Colorado Sun reported, and the trend is to move list their status as unaffiliated. Such voters make up a plurality – about 40% – of Colorado voters.
In Nevada, unaffiliated voters are moving closer to being at parity with the major parties. Democrats and Republicans each have about 700,000 members, while 500,000 identify as nonpartisan, says Yindra Dixon, owner of the Las Vegas-based political firm Blackbox Consulting Group.
“The parties right now just don’t have control of the narrative,” Dixon says. “Passion wins elections. But good government moderates.” Nevada, notably, is one state that offers voters the option of “none of the above.”
Independent advocates say there are some actions states and the parties can take to give independent voters more of a voice. Open primaries is one promoted idea. Another is ranked-choice voting and “jungle primaries,” which take the top vote-getters in any party and put them in a runoff.
But experts acknowledge it will be tough, since the nation – even as it expresses frustration over the behavior of the two major parties – is still very much entrenched in the system.
“The problem, of course, is that money is binary,” going to one party infrastructure or the other, Dixon says. “At the end of the day, it really is all about the money.”