Independent Voters Mistrust Politicians

It will be key to any statewide initiative strategy to predict when independent voters will side with liberals or conservatives. Using data gathered by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) on the last election, it is possible to design a rubric that measures independents’ fidelity with Democratic or liberal positions. The results show that they side with Democrats and liberals in most cases, but do not trust the Legislature and elected officials.

Methodology: Determining Which Way a Population Breaks

Assuming that independent voters perfectly represent the center of rest of the population's political make up, independents' responses to questions should reflect those of partisans. In California, according to the PPIC survey, Democrats enjoy a 13% advantage in self-identification. Indeed, when asked which party independents self-identify an affinity towards, Democrats enjoy a 14% advantage. Independents’ self-identities do correlate with the self-identities of their milieu. When asked to describe their political views, however, independents prove to be almost evenly divided between conservative and liberal views (‘conservative’ actually enjoys an overall 2% advantage).

[W]ould you consider yourself to be politically…?
  • 12% very liberal
  • 21% somewhat liberal
  • 29% middle of the road
  • 21% somewhat conservative
  • 15% very conservative
  • 2% don’t know

The implication here is that independents either believe California’s Democratic establishment to be more conservative than it is, or the Republican establishment to be too conservative for mainstream views. Whatever the situation, independents’ self-identified party affinity does not correlate to their self-identified political views. It can therefore be assumed that party affinity does not fully predict independent voters' preference on issues. That is to say, they break for the Democrats sometimes, but break for Republicans other times.

To measure when they break one way or the other, independents’ responses on various initiatives and to questions are compared to those of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. Their party self-identity is the same as the rest of the population, and they should therefore respond exactly in the middle of Democratic and Republican results. Where they do not, demonstrates where their political views override their party affinity.

Independents’ ratings of Governor Schwarzenegger’s job will serve as an example and a baseline for other comparisons.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s job performance:


The difference between the Democratic and Republican responses is 19% in both cases, and the median is 9.5%. For both responses, the independents’ position places them 2.5% to the ‘left’ of the median, thus breaking in favor of the Democratic position on the question. As explained above, since independents self-identify themselves by party at almost the same rate as the rest of the population, this move away from a predicted response suggests that independents side with the Democrats when considering Governor Schwarzenegger's performance.

This 2.5% break towards the Democrats repeats in independents’ votes both for and against Proposition 1A. Interestingly, independents broke in favor of the Democratic position on Proposition 8 by 4% in voting yes and 6% in voting no. On Proposition 4, another socially contentious initiative, independents actually broke in favor of Republicans by 0.5%. On Propositions 8 and 4, independent voters swam against the stream.

Independents broke in favor of Republican positions also on Proposition 11, which seems contrary to their position on the Governor’s performance. Their break regarding the Legislature’s performance was mixed, with a 0.5% break towards the Democrats in approval, but a 3.5% break towards the Democrats in their disapproval. While Democrats were more supportive of the Legislature than Republicans, the difference in breaks shows that independents lean towards disapproval of the Legislature, just not to the degree that Republicans do, generally. More telling, is their 5.5% break in favor of the Republican position when asked whether they trust elected officials to write public policy, rather that the voters through initiatives. Republicans strongly distrust elected officials, and independents lean that way, too.

Conclusion: Trust is the Key to Independents’ Votes

Independent voters in California seem perfectly inclined to vote with Democrats in favor of public expenditures and even in defense of civil rights for homosexuals. When asked to trust elected representatives, they lean in disapproval of the Legislature, buck the Democrats’ faith in public officials, and even vote against their own dissatisfaction with Governor Schwarzenegger.

Going forward, the findings advise the strategist, especially those campaigning for liberal positions, to avoid the endorsement of elected personalities and promote liberal ideals. An independent voter likes liberal policies, but not policymakers.

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