A study by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy showed that registered independents, who last year became the largest bloc of voters in the state, overwhelmingly view themselves as moderates, are issue-driven and, perhaps most importantly, don’t exercise the political muscle they have in elections.
According to the study, conducted on behalf of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, 73 percent of the 1,200 registered independents surveyed described themselves as political moderates, compared to nearly 15 percent who said they were conservative and 12 percent who said they were liberal. About a quarter of independents who identified as conservative or liberal said they usually vote along party lines, compared to about 13 percent for the moderates.
With the voter turnout among independents low and the conservative and liberal independents typically leaning toward the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, that leaves 17 percent of all registered voters, about 553,000 people, as the voters who can swing an election, based on the study’s findings. The question for candidates is how to reach out to those voters who don’t strongly identify with either major party.
“The challenge is to capture moderate independents, those in the middle who see themselves as separated from both political party philosophies and whose vote cannot be easily predicted or won,” the study read.
David Daugherty, one of the study’s authors, said the biggest takeaway for him was that the attitudes of independent voters are hard to predict, especially among the 73 percent who identify as moderates. The important thing to understand about independents, he said, is that there is no such thing as a prototypical independent voter.
“That’s sort of where the battle lines are drawn,” Daugherty said. “If I’m a Republican or Democratic policy person and I’m trying to chase these voters, those are the folks I’ve got a crack at.
However, the study does provide some insight into what issues are most important to those moderate independents. Unsurprisingly, moderates typically fell between Republicans and Democrats, as well as self-described conservative and liberal independents, on a host of issues.
Seventy-seven percent of moderate independents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for public school spending, more than the number of Republicans and self-described conservative independents, but fewer than the number of Democrats and liberal moderates who said the same.
In some cases, moderate independents showed strong support for traditionally Democratic and liberal positions. Two-thirds of moderate independents said they believe climate change is caused primarily by human activity, while nearly 77 percent said they support comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally. About 82 percent of moderate independents said they support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
On other issues, moderate independents skewed more toward the conservative side. Only about 40 percent said they believe Arizona needs more restrictive gun laws, while nearly 76 percent said they believe that Arizona should challenge the federal government on states’ rights issues. Nearly 76 percent of moderate independents also said they believe the state should reduce its overall spending. Only 29 percent said the death penalty should be abolished, a position that polled poorly among every group except self-described liberal independents.
The study’s findings on the self-described moderates could provide a roadmap to election officials and candidates for how to attract independent votes.
Tom Collins, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said the commission wanted the study, which cost $60,000, because, “It allows the commission and other election officials to have a more direct sense of what the population of the largest voting group looks like in terms of its views and how those voters see themselves.”
Collins said the results could help the commission focus its voter-education efforts, which he said have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. The study showed that independents often view politics on an issue-by-issue basis, and that could help the commission shape its voter-education messages to emphasize why voting is important.
“It’s one thing to say voting is a civic duty, and it is. But voting is more directly the way you make your voice heard on specific policy issues that matter to you,” Collins said.
But Collins said the study didn’t provide a clear picture on how to increase turnout among independents. He emphasized that wasn’t the purpose of the study.
“Direct decision-making around where to target resources for the purpose of ensuring voters have access to the resources they need access to … that’s an implementation question. The study’s purpose is to give, I think, background on all of those aspects about independents,” he said.
In 2014, independents became the largest bloc of voters in Arizona, outnumbering Republicans or Democrats, and that trend has continued over the past year and a half. The most recent data from the Secretary of State’s Office, compiled on Oct. 28, shows more than 1.2 million registered independents in Arizona, compared to about 1.1 million Republicans and 932,000 Democrats.
The study indicated that the ranks of independent voters will keep growing. About 49 percent of Democrats surveyed and nearly 47 percent of Republicans said they would consider switching their registration to independent. Of the independents surveyed, 21 percent said they used to be Democrats and more than 24 percent identified as former Republicans.
Of course, those independents can only make their voices heard or sway elections if they vote. And historically, they have only done so in small numbers, especially in the primary elections that are often the only races that truly matter.
Fifty-two percent of independents in the study said they voted in the 2014 primary election, compared to 81 percent of the Republicans who were surveyed and 68 percent of the Democrats – the study included 400 registered voters from each major party – but actual election results show turnout is far lower than the study indicated. The study’s authors wrote that respondents “tend to overstate their voting behavior – primarily because it is socially unacceptable to admit to not voting.”
In 2010, only 34 percent of Maricopa County independents voted in the general election and a paltry 8 percent voted in the primary, the study said. In contrast, 42 percent of the county’s Republicans voted in the primary and 61 percent in the general, while 25 percent of Democrats voted in the primary and 50 percent in the general. Statewide, a little more than 12 percent of independents voted in the 2010 primary and just under 12 percent cast primary ballots in 2014, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
The survey noted that many independents don’t realize that they can vote in the Democratic or Republican primaries. Daugherty said he believes more would cast ballots in the primaries if they knew it was an option, but not at anywhere near the same rates the Democrats and Republicans.i