Did independent voters decide the New Hampshire primary?

Rod Webber before a Marco Rubio rally in Exeter, New Hampshire. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Last week, the diehards had their say in Iowa. Last night in New Hampshire, the independents took their turn.

The Iowa caucuses are time-consuming, and only the most committed or ideological partisans show up.

But New Hampshire’s election laws allow people to vote in the primaries even if they are not registered with one of the parties. These voters – the “undeclared” – make up just over 40 percent of potential primary voters in the Granite State. The fact that these undeclared voters could participate in voting has led some to suggest that the New Hampshire primary lay in the hands of independent voters.

But were these voters pivotal? Research that Samara Klar and I did for our new book, Independent Politics, indicates the answer to this question is more complicated than simple exit poll numbers suggest.

A good-sized minority

Are American voters flying away from the two-party system? REUTERS/Mike Segar

According to CNN’s exit polls, of those who voted in the Republican primary, 60 percent were registered Republicans and 35 percent were undeclared voters.

Among those who voted in the Democratic primary, 41 percent were undeclared, while 54 percent were registered Democrats.

In both parties, exit polls had no information about the registration status of about five to six percent of the primary voters – which explains why these numbers don’t total 100 percent.

Exit polls ask respondents to describe their registration status – Republican, Democrat or undeclared. But they also ask people how they describe their own political leanings. A person, for example, may be an undeclared voter but freely report that he or she is a Democrat or Republican.

When we look at exit poll questions that allowed people to describe their own political leaning, about 40 percent of the voters in both primaries identified as “independent.”

On the Republican side, the independents and the party enrolled both favored the same candidate, Donald Trump, by about 35 percent. In other words, exit polls suggest that independent voters didn’t change who won the Republican race.

What’s more, we see few divides between independents and Republicans as we go down the list of GOP candidates. John Kasich, for example, takes second place at similar rates among voters who consider themselves Republican and those who consider themselves independent.

Independents do appear much more pivotal in the Democratic primary.

Although Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders split the self-identified Democrats’ vote nearly evenly (48 percent to 52 percent), Sanders took 72 percent of the independents.

Motivation is key

It’s important to understand that a person’s choice to be an “undeclared” voter does not mean that he or she has no particular preference for a party.

Political scientists have demonstrated that people who are independent or “undeclared” often clearly like one party better than the other. For some, this classification may reflect the fact that their political positions do not fit neatly with either party. For others, the label may simply be a way of hiding their ideological connection to a party.

Our research shows that people’s desire to hide their partisan connection stems from dissatisfaction with the two political parties. Media coverage that highlights partisan bickering and polarization, we argue, leads people to believe that there is nothing positive about the party establishment. If that is the case, it should not be surprising that the large number of independents voting in the New Hampshire primaries threw their support behind candidates with no experience in either party machine.

The New Hampshire exit polls suggest that the independence of the primary voters is – at least in part – a mirage. Among those who voted in the Republican primary, 71 percent identify as conservatives and 27 percent report they are moderate. Of those voting in the Democratic primary, 69 percent reported they were liberal and 27 percent report that they were moderate. These patterns suggest a notable connection between party and ideology that has remained undiluted by the presence of independent or undeclared voters.

Indeed, the majority of New Hampshire voters who believe that the next president should come from “outside the establishment” supported Trump and Sanders. Among Republican voters who wanted an “outside the establishment” candidate, 61 percent supported Trump. Meanwhile, 86 percent of those on the Democratic side who wanted an “outside the establishment” candidate supported Sanders. Notably, however, only 27 percent of those voting in the Democratic primary reported this sentiment, while 50 percent of Republicans did.

As Klar and I have argued, the same forces that lead people to avoid associating with parties would also lead them to candidates like Trump and Sanders.

A weakening force

As interesting as independents are in New Hampshire, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about the remaining primaries from this first one. Due in part to its unusual primary structure, New Hampshire may draw more independent voters than primaries in other states.

Nonetheless, New Hampshire hints at an emerging relationship between the independent voter and the nonestablishment candidate. It is only reasonable that voters who avoid publicly identifying with established parties would be drawn to candidates who seem to care little about what their party wants or thinks.

Only time will tell if this connection between independents and the establishment will change the party system. Decades of political science research show that when it comes to the general election, most independents fall into party lines and vote for whichever candidate the party they prefer has nominated.

On the other hand, political science research could not have predicted that nonestablishment candidates like Trump and Sanders would win primaries. So perhaps the lesson of independents in New Hampshire is that the parties in 2016 are heading toward uncharted territory.

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