Independents in the Primaries

February 26, 2008 on 1:22 pm

With the lion’s share of the primary season now done, exit polls show Independents have heavily favored participation in the Democratic primaries over the Republican.

As of February 25, primaries or caucuses have been held in 37 states. However, in some of these states, only one party has had its caucus or primary, in others (Florida and Michigan), candidates did not campaign. For other states, complete exit polling is not readily available. Also, in trying to get a sense of numbers of Independents choosing one party over the other, a good case can be made for focusing only on primaries; i.e., caucuses vary widely according to local party rules that affect significantly the number of participants.

This leaves the following: Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The total number of votes cast in these 13 states was approximately 24.5 million, 15.5 million in Democrat primaries and 9 million for Republican. This would seem to be a fair sample.

Exit poll estimates of Independents participating in these contests ranged from 12% (Democratic in New York and New Jersey) to 44% (Democratic in New Hampshire and Republican in Massachusetts). Most most fell between 17% and 23% of the polling sample.  When exit poll estimates of Independents in each of the 13 states, for each of the parties, is multiplied by the number of votes cast in each of the state party primaries listed above, the results are telling. Sixty one percent of those self-indentifying as Independents chose to participate in the Democratic primary vs 39% in the Republican primary. Of the 24.5 million voting, exit polling indicates that 4.9 million were either Independents or registered Republican and Democrat voters who indentified themselves to the pollsters as Independent.

And what does this all mean? First off, with 20% of the total voters polled, Independents are heavily engaged in this election season. More importantly, they have played a strong role in determining the success of the front runner in each party. Of the 13 primaries noted above, exit polls show Sen. McCain winning among Independents in 11; all but Georgia and Virginia. On the Democratic side, Sen. Obama led with Independents in 12 of the state primaries; all but Massachusetts. Indeed, in 6 of the 13 primaries, exit polls show Obama winning Independents by 30 percentage points or more.

If senators McCain and Obama each do, in fact, win their party’s nomination, the general election will in large part be a contest between candidates each of whom has succeeded best with Independents. And if Independent participation continues apace, 20 percent of the voters in the general election will self-identify to pollsters as Independent. With over 100 million expected at the polls in November, that’s 20 million plus of us. 

Independents may never have played so heavy a role in a national election, will have been so responsible for the outcome. It is certainly an opportunity no true American can pass up. Hinge elections come to us perhaps once in a generation. Don’t miss this one.


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