Democrats would not have had such a good election night without the support of independent voters.
These mystical swing voters are unaffiliated with any particular party, are more ideologically moderate, and represent a diverse array of voters in the United States. But they are also difficult to reach, often less politically involved, and often confused with “weak partisans” (less energetic Democrats or Republicans) because they can have ideological leanings.
They’re also prone to swing elections — and this year’s waning of the much-vaunted “red wave” is due in part to independent voters choosing the Democratic nominee in competitive contests in swing states and districts.
Despite numerous polls this year showing that independents like Republicans were primarily concerned about the state of the economy and inflation, they made nuanced decisions in key statewide races — and Democrats benefited.
“This was a really complicated election with complicated issues and anyone who says this election was about the economy or about abortion doesn’t really know what they’re talking about because [the issues] have played different backlashes with different types of voters,” Bryan Bennett, the chief researcher at progressive Navigator Research firm, told me. “Especially with the independents, the Biden administration’s economic record was necessary but not sufficient, and for many voters the Dobbs The decision ultimately played a pretty crucial role in at least getting independents somewhere where they were divided overall, rather than overwhelmingly favoring Republicans for Congress.”
From state to state, these numbers show up in news networks’ exit polls (which provide an incomplete but early look at how a constituency behaves during an election) and other post-election polls. In Arizona, for example, Senator Mark Kelly’s victory over Blake Masters in the state’s US Senate was fueled by support from 55 percent of independents — who made up the largest proportion of voters (about 40 percent). The Associated Press midterm poll also showed the independents falling nearly 20 points in favor of the Democrats.
In Nevada’s Senate election, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto won the support of 48 percent of independents, compared to the 45 percent of independents who supported Republican Adam Laxalt, Exit polls show. This included strong independent support in the Washoe County swing, which Cortez Masto won at that contest (she lost it at her first pick in 2016). The AP VoteCast poll shows a nearly 10 percent gap in favor of Democrats.
In Georgia, Senator Raphael Warnock won 53 percent of independents, according to exit polls, though they made up a smaller portion (24 percent) of that electorate. This competition is heading towards a runoff in December. Sen. Maggie Hassan, the Democrat who was re-elected in New Hampshire, meanwhile, won a similar proportion of independents: 54 percent of the group, which made up a variety of voters. And John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who won his race by a margin of 5 percent, had the support of 58 percent of independents.
In most polls leading up to Election Day, the independent support numbers didn’t look as good as the exit polls and total votes would end up doing. A few factors led to this shift in support.
Republican extremism on abortion rights has deterred many independents
Perhaps the most puzzling finding for pundits across the spectrum was how voters’, and particularly independents’, negative perceptions of President Joe Biden’s job performance and the state of the economy did not result in a massive turnaround for Republicans. But voters didn’t see their options through a single lens on Election Day. Independents in particular also weighed certain candidates’ stance on abortion rights against the Democrats’ economic record.
Bennett told me that Navigator’s mid-term poll (conducted before and after Election Day, among voters who voted early or voted in person) shows a strong split in how independent men and women feel about candidates, with more independent women choosing to support Democrats as independent men.
In data provided to Vox from Navigator’s mid-term voter poll, these numbers show that for independent men, inflation was the top concern for half of them, while abortion was the top concern for 23 percent. Among women, inflation was the top concern for 46 percent of respondents, while abortion was a close second at 34 percent. Though the numbers differ slightly between the Navigator and Exit polls, they show the same gender gap of 17 percent: Independent men supported Republicans slightly more than Democrats, but independent women supported Democrats by a much larger margin.
“That’s a very important part of the story — the way abortion was played out, especially with independent women,” Bennett said.
Daniel Cox, pollster and director of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute, made a similar argument last week about the influence of liberal young women on Democrat success.
“When it comes to abortion and Trump-style politics, many swing voters have been turned off by extreme Republican candidates, but that combination proved uniquely off-putting to young women,” he wrote, while summarizing pre-election polls, early turnout estimates by Tufts University youth and exit surveys.
Add to that the popularity of various elements of Biden’s economic agenda, such as the high popularity of the Inflation Reduction Act, and you get more of a picture of an election where voters weren’t primarily driven by anger at the party in power. but of candidates and politics. Voters driven primarily by economic concerns appear to have voted for Republicans in congressional elections, while those driven primarily by abortion rights or a mix of issues appear more likely to vote for Democrats in those contests.
And another motivator: threats to democracy and sentiment
The “vibes” were gone too. Many independent voters felt put off by Republican candidates close to Trump. Some disliked the GOP candidates’ positions on abortion; others were repelled by other social and economic attitudes.
“We’ve seen some movement over the summer and fall, particularly among independents, regarding the perception that Republicans are too ‘radical.’ That could very well be largely related to Republicans’ association with being anti-abortion rights,” Bennett said. “A combination of that Dobbs decision and the push for abortion bans – which are perceived as quite extreme, and the January 6 hearings and talks about political violence.”
That was a bet many Democrats were willing to make. “It all hung together,” Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, who chairs the congressional pro-choice caucus, told the New York Times. “People were like, ‘I’m worried about the economy. I worry about freedoms being taken away, and they worried about democracy too.”
Another theme emerged in talks with successful candidates for Secretary of State, who won the Independents by a wide margin and repelled a wave of voter deniers and Republican candidates trying to oversee electoral administration: Many Independents and Republicans were frustrated with candidates who seemed to care little about the integrity of the elections and who questioned the results of the 2020 election.
Kim Rogers, the executive director of the Democratic Association of Foreign Ministers, told me that the advantage Democrats have had this cycle was that many people in the middle of the political spectrum simply didn’t buy the outlandish claims made by many Republican candidates in the making.
“There are many independents and there are still Republicans who believe in the promise of democracy, in our electoral structure and that it should be preserved,” she said. “Generally, when you talk to these people, voters want someone who respects the will of the voters. When you have people running to monitor elections, saying they’re doing it so they can pick the winners and determine the results, that’s a natural ‘in your face’ for voters.”
Denial candidates and candidates aligned with Donald Trump might actually have deterred independents from other Republican candidates on the ticket.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Attorney General Josh Shapiro won the gubernatorial race by beating Independents (by 29 points) and Political Moderates (by 40 points) by historic margins against far-right, vote-busting, Christian fundamentalist Republican Doug Mastriano. Mehmet Oz, the more moderate Republican candidate for the US Senate, was dragged down by both Mastriano and his own poorly run campaign, losing the Independents by 20 points and the Moderates by 30 points. These differing levels of support also indicate some degree of split-ticket voting, meaning independent and Republican voters were even more selective in the Republican candidates they eventually supported.
In this way, the poor quality of Republican candidates hurts other Republicans, especially among independents and moderates, as my colleague Andrew Prokop has reported. Trump’s affiliation has weighed on these candidates too, argue analysts at The Economist and The New York Times, and together you get the picture of a winning coalition: independent voters and even some Republicans, feeling uncomfortable supporting Republican candidates and opting for a safer, Democratic option.