The Independent States of America

Colin Bowers (@colinsonofroy)

The idea of the independent-minded non-partisan swing American voter seems to be a timeless one. Every election, centrist-minded op-ed writers lecture their mostly progressive readership about the need to moderate their heart’s desires to win elections. This industry has gotten so popular that there’s now a fully formed backlash arguing that the American center is dead. While some timeless debates can never be fully settled, the New York Times Upshot/Siena midterm polling offers an interesting dataset through which to explore this question further.

The Times has been polling midterm battleground races and posting the results online since early September. The live polling aspect of the project is a fascinating insight into how the polling sausage is made. For our purposes, they also posted their results on Github. The Upshot/Siena team has called over 2 million cell phones and landlines and, as of 10/22, polled nearly 30,000 citizens about their voting preferences. They also asked questions about demographic information, party identification, and respondent’s opinions on hot-button issues. We can filter for the responses independent voters and study their demographics and preferences further using this party identification. The Upshot/Siena data contains 9,462 self-identified independents. The Upshot/Siena team also provided a likely voter weighting, which we used for all our analysis. Figure 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the independent voters polled. It should be noted that while this analysis seeks to live up to its title and lend insights about the entire United States, a more accurate description would be “The Independent States of America as Visualized by Battleground Districts in the 2018 Election.” The self-identified independents in these districts might be different than those in the reddest parts of Wyoming or bluest parts of California. A couple trends emerge when looking at the demographic data. White men are more likely to identify as independent than any other racial/gender combination. Independents seem to be disproportionately white and it’s notable that men outnumber women despite the likely voter weighting since women vote in higher numbers than men. Also, self-identifying as an independent seems to be something that transcends educational and age differences.


Figure 1. Demographic Breakdown of Self-Identified Independents in the Upshot/Siena Polls

Demographic information is useful, but the real value in looking at independent voters is trying to understand what they think. Are they just like Democrats and Republicans but hate the labels? Do they have an idiosyncratic set of positions that make both parties hostile? We can use the issue polling the Upshot/Siena team did to try and add value to this conversation.

Figure 2 shows how self-identified independents answered several different issue questions. There are three caveats with this analysis.

  1. The Upshot/Siena team only asked every participant if they approved of Trump and who they wanted to win the House. All other questions were asked to a subset of districts.

  2. Some questions asked by the Upshot/Siena team are not included because they don’t lend useful ideological information, or they were asked to too few districts.

  3. For the purposes of visualization, the Upshot/Siena questions were shortened and re-phrased, while retaining as much of the original meaning as possible.


Figure 2. Issue Polling from Independent Voters

Even among independent voters, it’s clear that progressive positions have more support than conservative ones. Fifty-six percent of independents favor single-payer health care and only 35 percent support reducing legal immigration and building the wall. On a more day-to-day politics vein, 52 percent of independents support the Mueller investigation and only 21 percent believe the right’s lies that immigrants commit more crime. In fact, the only clearly progressive idea that is underwater among independents is abolishing ICE (sorry Sean!). Trump’s approval among independents is 41 percent and the Democrats lead the swing district independent’s generic ballot 45 percent to 40 percent. All told, swing district independents in 2018 seem to favor the Democratic party a bit and left-leaning positions by a bit more.

In addition to looking at what independents in 2018 think about issues, it’s also possible to use the Upshot/Siena data to figure out whether independents really are different from partisan voters. Figure 3 compares the answers of independent voters who are supporting the Democratic candidate in 2018 to self-identified Democrats. Figure 4 does the same but with independents supporting the Republican candidate and Republicans.


Figure 3. Issue Polling from Democratic-voting Independents and Democratic Voters

It is remarkable how similar the results are between the heatmaps. On many issues, Democratic voting independents are indistinguishable from the party members they refuse to join. The biggest spreads between the two groups occur on the most partisan questions, such as Brett Kavanaugh or the generic ballot. On ideological issues, like single payer, immigration, or race, there is very little difference.

A comparison on the right shows a similar trend, but like in everything else, they are more extreme.

Figure 4. Issue Polling from Republican-voting Independents and Republican Voters

As expected, Republican voters are exceptionally supportive of Trump and issues he has promoted, such as NFL kneeling and the wall. They also believe he has drained the swamp. Republican-voting independents agree, but they support all these issues less than Republican voters. The issues the two groups agree on most are related to the economy, such as the tax cut and whether Trump is to credit for the strong economy.

Based on the Upshot/Siena polling, independents in 2018 are leaning left in their political preferences. Moreover, independents across the spectrum seem virtually indistinguishable for the party they vote for but won’t join. It seems like the center is dead after all.

Colin Bowers (@colinsonofroy) is a data analyst and engineer with an interest in using data science to advance progressive causes, especially those related to the environment, international affairs, and social justice.

Sean McElwee