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Independent Voters and Empty Explanations

Karl Rove:

The trend here is that suburban and independent voters moved into the GOP column. The overall shift away from Democrats was 13 points in Virginia, 12 points in New Jersey, and eight points in Pennsylvania. […]

Looking ahead, the bad news for Democrats is that the legislation that helped lead to the collapse of support for their party on Tuesday could yet inflict more pain on those foolish enough to support it.

The Washington Post:

But moderate and conservative Democrats took a clear signal from Tuesday’s voting, warning that the results prove that independent voters are wary of Obama’s far-reaching proposals and mounting spending, as well as the growing federal debt.

Jim Cooper (Blue Dog-TN)

“Lesser mortals need to be worried about their independent voters because they have shifted strongly against Democrats in recent months. Independent voters tend to look at the issue, not the party, and they don’t like a lot of what Congress has done.”

This is what passes for analysis nowadays.

Why did Democrats lose in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday? Because independent voters moved against them, say the pundits.

This is true, insofar as it goes; Democrats lost independents nearly 2:1 in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, and by a 25-point margin in New Jersey.

But it doesn’t really tell us very much. It’s a lot like saying: the Yankees won the Game 6 last night because they scored more runs than the Phillies. Or: the unemployment rate went up because there were fewer jobs.

In almost every competitive general election, the party that loses the contest has also lost independent voters. This is because most people (although less so in gubernatorial elections) vote strictly along party lines: the Democrat might be all but guaranteed 80 to 90 percent of the Democratic vote, and the Republican 80 to 90 percent of the Republican vote. Except in certain regions of the country where one or another party encompasses a particularly wide range of ideologies (such as NY-23’s Republicans or vestigial “Solid South” Democrats), it’s independents who swing the vote, since they represent the overwhelming majority of the votes which are up-for-grabs. This must necessarily be the case.

But in politics, it’s not the proximate cause we’re interested in but the ultimate one. Yes: independents went mostly for Republicans in New Jersey and Virginia (we could have inferred this without having to look at the exit poll). Yes, this “caused” the Democratic defeats. But what caused the independents to move against the Democrats? That’s what we’re really interested in, since that’s what will have implications for future elections.

Too often in “mainstream” political analysis, once it is pointed out that independents have swung in one or another direction, the analysis stops. The pundit inserts his own opinion about what caused the independent vote to shift (“Obama’s far-reaching proposals and mounting spending”, says the Washington Post), without citing any evidence. It’s a neat trick, and someone who isn’t paying attention is liable to conclude that the pundit has actually said something interesting.

But in New Jersey, there’s literally almost no evidence that the Democrats’ agenda had anything to do with Jon Corzine’s defeat. Voters who cited a national issue were more likely to vote for Corzine, and voters who cited a local one, the Republican Chris Christie.

In Virginia, the evidence is certainly a little stronger, insofar as the national agenda may have affected the lopsided turnout (the electorate which turned out Tuesday had voted for John McCain by 8 points, a near-reversal of the actual results). Even there, however, the quarter of the electorate that cited health care as their main issue went for the Democrat Deeds 51-49. And in NY-23, which was supposed to have been the ultimate smackdown of the Democrats’ agenda, the Republican Conservative candidate unexpectedly lost.

Part of the problem is that ‘independents’ are not a particularly coherent group. At a minimum, the category of ‘independents’ includes:

1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

These voters have almost nothing to do with each other and yet they all get grouped under the same umbrella as ‘independents’.

But that’s getting away from the point. Independent voters are treated as a cause, when all that they really are is a symptom. The key is in figuring out what ails the patient.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.