How independent are Howard County independents?

Continuing my series of posts related to my political beliefs, today I thought I’d look at the issue of independent voters and what their independence actually entails. One of HoCo Rising‘s comments to me was regarding whether the concept of a partisan moderate actually made sense. Whether the label actually applies to me is a separate question, and one which after thinking about it I’ll likely end up answering in the negative. However I did think it was interesting that the concept of being a political moderate seems to be getting conflated with the idea of being relatively nonpartisan and independent in one’s political views.

From that perspective the ideal moderate would presumably be someone like Wordbones who’s not bound to either of the two main political parties and is willing to consistently vote for person not party (as evidenced by his one from column A, one from column B District 9A endorsements). That in turn spurred me to look into the question of whether and to what extent this ideal of the politically engaged nonpartisan independent moderate actually matches reality.

First, let’s see how big a force political independents actually are. There are at least two ways to measure this: people’s party identification (or lack thereof) as reported in polls, and party affiliations as recorded in voter registration databases. We shouldn’t necessarily expect these measures to agree. For example, in some states that are dominated by a single party and have uncompetitive general elections it’s not uncommon for independents to register as Democrats or Republicans in order to be able to vote in primaries. Voter registration statistics in those states would therefore underestimate the number of independents.

I’m not aware of any published Howard County-specific polls that record party identification. (If any of you know of some, please let me know.) However at the national level the conventional wisdom has been that the number of independent voters is continuing to rise, with independent voters constituting at least a third of all voters and possibly becoming the largest single group of voters. (See for example the Rasmussen summary of party affiliation over the last several years.) Thus the implication that independent voters are now in the drivers seat, eager to cast their vote for whichever party can figure out what independents want.

Now let’s look at the second measure, voter registration statistics, in particular the monthly voter registration statistics from the Maryland Board of Elections. According to the last report before the September primary there were 176,599 registered voters in Howard County , of whom 85,350 (48.1%) were registered Democrats, 54,584 (30.9%) were registered Republicans, 1,030 (0.6%) were registered members of the other recognized political parties in Maryland (almost all in either the Green and Libertarian parties), and 35,635 (20.3%) were unaffiliated. In other words, roughly half of Howard County registered voters are Democrats, a third are Republicans, and a fifth are presumably independent in some sense.

(These numbers have not greatly changed over the last ten years: The voter registration report for August 2000, ten years earlier, shows 47.1% of Howard County voters registered as Democrats, 36.2% as Republicans, 0.1% as Libertarians, and 16.5% as unaffiliated.)

So based on national polling we’d expect 30% or more of Howard County voters to be independents, while based on voter registration we’d expect only 20% to be so. One way to reconcile this is as I noted above: We hypothesize that lots of independent voters register as Democrats in Maryland because it’s effectively a one-party state, and independent voters want to exercise more influence over who gets nominated and (likely) elected.

However another possibility is that the polling regarding party identification is misleading, and that the number of independent voters is significantly overstated. This is the thesis of the political scientist John Sides:

Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter (here).

When asked a follow-up question [to the party identification question], the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the independent leaners.

The number of pure independents is actually quite small—perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.

Sides goes on to claim that most independents are simply weak partisans who for whatever reason don’t want to identify with their party of choice (There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans.) and argues against the idea that the opinions of true independents (i.e., those who are not partisans) have significant political consequences:

… many claims about the opinions of independents never separate leaners from pure independents. …

… movement among “pure” independents is generally less consequential simply because there are so few of these people and because they are less likely than partisans to vote (only 44% of pure independents reported voting in 2008 vs. 82% of strong partisans). If an election was a nailbiter, then the votes of pure independents could provide the margin of victory, but I don’t know of any estimates of how often that is actually true.

Of particular interest is Sides’s claim that true independents are not that politically engaged. Is this true in Howard County? To shed some light on this, let’s look at the September 2010 primary results. (The results I’m linking to are the unofficial results from the Howard County board of elections; unfortunately the official results reported by the state board of elections don’t contain the breakdowns I needed.)

The most recent primary had some competitive local races (e.g., the District 4 county council race on the Democratic side and the District 13 state senate race on the Republican side) but from a county-wide perspective it was a pretty tame affair. Out of 85,349 registered Democrats only 22,221 voted in the primary, or 26.0%. Out of 54,584 registered Republicans only 14,951 voted in the primary, or 27.4%.

However by most accounts the Board of Education race was pretty competitive and attracted a fair amount of interest. One would therefore expect that a fair number of independents would have turned out to vote in it. As it turned out, 38,595 ballots were counted for that race; subtracting the 22,221 Democrats and 14,951 Republicans leaves 1,423 ballots cast by unaffiliated voters and voters belonging to other parties. Given that there are a total of 36,466 such voters, the turnout of independent voters was no greater than 4.0%. In other words, independent voters turned out at a rate about one sixth that of partisan voters.

These turnout figures are consistent with the turnout figures for the 2006 primary. In that primary 37.0% of registered Democrats voted in Howard County, 21.9% of registered Republicans, and only 4.1% of registered independents.

Now admittedly, these were both primary elections. What can we expect from a general election, in which independents would presumably show up in force? Looking at the turnout figures for the 2006 general election (the first O’Malley-Ehrlich contest), we see that 68.6% of registered Democrats voted in Howard County, 67.4% of registered Republicans, and only 50.6% of registered independents. In other words, registered independents were only about three quarters as likely to vote as registered partisans.

(This result can be modeled nicely, albeit quite speculatively, as follows: Although 20% of the registered voters in Howard County are independents, we assume that only 10% are true independents and the other 10% are independent leaners. We further assume that the independent leaners are as likely to vote as registered partisans, while the true independents are about half as likely to vote as registered partisans and independent leaners. Combining these turnout percentages gives us an estimated turnout percentage for all independents that is three quarters of that of registered partisans.)

Sides concludes his post as follows:

90% of the public is partisan and about 80-90% of those voters vote for their party’s candidate. This is why the story of presidential elections is so often a story about partisans and not the fence-sitters who CNN recruits for debate dial groups.

We can translate this into Howard County terms: Local elections this fall will likely not be determined by a presumed growing bloc of Wordbones-style independent moderates. (In fact, it’s quite possible that the number of truly independent moderates who are actively politically engaged does not exceed one or two per cent of the electorate.) Instead local elections will likely be determined primarily by the relative numbers of declared or undeclared Democrats and Republicans in the county and in each district, and by each party’s success in getting their registered voters and leaners out to the polls.