Democrats would not have had such a good election night without the support of independent voters.
These mystical swing voters don’t affiliate themselves with a specific party, tend to be more ideologically moderate, and represent a plurality of voters in the United States. But they are also hard to reach, often less politically engaged, and frequently confused with “weak partisans” (less energetic Democrats or Republicans) because they can have ideological leans.
They also tend to swing elections — and this year’s dissipation of the much-hyped “red wave” is partially a result of independent voters picking the Democratic candidate in competitive contests in swing states and districts.
Despite plenty of polling this year showing that independents were, like Republicans, primarily concerned with the state of the economy and inflation, they ended up making nuanced decisions in key statewide races — and that worked to benefit Democrats.
“This was a really complicated election with complicated issues, and for anyone to say this election was about the economy or this election was about abortion doesn’t really know what they’re talking about because [the issues] played different cross-pressures with different types of voters,” Bryan Bennett, the chief pollster at the progressive Navigator Research firm, told me. “With independents in particular, the economic record of the Biden administration was necessary, but not sufficient, and for a lot of voters, the Dobbs decision ultimately played a fairly decisive role in at least getting independents to a place where overall they were split, as opposed to overwhelmingly favoring Republicans for Congress.”
State by state, those numbers come through in news networks’ exit polling (which provides an incomplete but early look at how an electorate behaved during an election) and other post-election surveys. In Arizona, for example, Sen. Mark Kelly’s win over Blake Masters in the state’s US Senate contest was boosted by the support of 55 percent of independents — who made up the largest share of the electorate (about 40 percent). The Associated Press’s midterm survey also found that independents broke in favor of Democrats by nearly 20 points.
In Nevada’s Senate race, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was able to win the support of 48 percent of independents, compared to the 45 percent of independents who supported Republican Adam Laxalt, exit polls show. That included strong independent support in the swing Washoe County, which Cortez Masto won in this contest (she lost it during her first election in 2016). The AP VoteCast survey shows a nearly 10 percent gap in favor of Democrats.
In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock won 53 percent of independents according to exit polls, though they made up a smaller share (24 percent) of that electorate. That contest is headed to a December runoff. Sen. Maggie Hassan, the Democrat who won reelection in New Hampshire, meanwhile, won a similar share of independents: 54 percent of the group that made up a plurality of voters. And John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, who won his race by a 5 percent vote margin, garnered the support of 58 percent of independents.
In most polling leading up to Election Day, the numbers of independent support did not look as good as the exit polls, and vote totals, would end up being. A few factors led to that shift in support.
Republican extremism on abortion rights turned off many independents
Perhaps the most confounding result for pundits across the spectrum was how the negative perception voters, and especially independents, had of President Joe Biden’s job performance and the state of the economy did not translate into a massive swing for Republicans. But voters weren’t viewing their Election Day options through a single lens. Independents, especially, were weighing specific candidates’ stances on abortion rights against Democrats’ record on the economy as well.
Bennett told me that Navigator’s midterm polling (conducted before and after Election Day, of voters who voted early or in-person) shows a strong split in how independent men and women were thinking of candidates, with more independent women choosing to support Democrats than independent men.
In data provided to Vox from Navigator’s midterm voters survey, those numbers show that for independent men, inflation was a 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 close behind at 34 percent. Though the numbers differ slightly between Navigator’s finding and exit polls, the same 17-percent gender gap shows up: Independent men supported Republicans slightly more than Democrats, but independent women backed Democrats by a much bigger margin.
“That’s a very important piece of the story — the way that abortion played particularly with independent women,” Bennett said.
Daniel Cox, a 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 young women, who skew liberal, on Democrats’ success.
“When it comes to abortion and Trump-style politics, many swing voters were turned off by extreme Republican candidates, but this combination proved uniquely repellant to young women,” he wrote while synthesizing pre-election polling, early estimates on youth turnout from Tufts University, and exit polls.
Add to that the popularity of different elements of the Biden economic agenda, like the high popularity of the Inflation Reduction Act, and you get more of a picture of a choice election, where voters were not driven primarily by anger at the party in power, but by candidates and policy. Voters who were driven primarily by economic concerns appear to have voted for Republicans in congressional races, while those who were driven by mostly abortion rights, or a mix of issues, seem like they tended to vote for Democrats in those contests.
And another motivator: threats to democracy, and the vibes
The “vibes” were also off. Plenty of independent voters felt off put by Trump-aligned Republican candidates. Some disliked GOP candidates’ positions on abortion; others were repelled by other social and economic stances.
“We did see some movement, particularly among independents, over the course of the summer and fall, in terms of the perception that Republicans were too ‘radical’. That may very well be tied predominantly to Republicans’ association with being against abortion rights,” Bennett said. “Some combination of the Dobbs decision and the push for abortion bans — that being perceived as pretty extreme, and the January 6 hearings and conversation around political violence.”
That was a bet plenty of Democrats were willing to make. “It was all tied together,” Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, who leads the Pro-Choice Caucus in Congress, told the New York Times. “People were thinking, ‘I’m worried about the economy. I’m worried about freedoms being taken away,’ and they were worried about democracy, too.”
Talking with successful candidates for secretary of state, who won independents by significant margins and beat back a wave of election deniers and Republican candidates trying to oversee election administration, another theme emerged: Many independents and Republicans were frustrated with candidates who seemed to care little about the integrity of elections, and who questioned the results of the 2020 election.
Kim Rogers, the executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told me that the advantage Democrats had this cycle was the wide swath of people in the middle of the political spectrum who just didn’t buy the outlandish claims many Republican candidates were making.
“There are a lot of independents and there are still Republicans that believe in the promise of democracy, in our electoral structures, and that they should be preserved,” she said. “When you’re talking to those folks, across the board, voters want somebody who will respect the will of voters. When you have people who are running to oversee elections that say they’re doing it so they can pick and choose the winners and determine outcomes, that is a natural ‘in your face’ to voters.”
Election denying candidates, and candidates aligned with Donald Trump, might have actually turned independents off from other Republican candidates on the ticket.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Attorney General Josh Shapiro won the gubernatorial race by winning independents (by 29 points) and political moderates (by 40 points) by historic margins against the far-right, election-denying, Christian fundamentalist Republican Doug Mastriano. Mehmet Oz, the more moderate Republican candidate for US Senate, was dragged down both by Mastriano and his own poorly run campaign, losing independents by 20 points and moderates by 30 points. Those varying levels of support also suggest a degree of split-ticket voting, which meant that independent and Republican voters were even more selective in the Republican candidates they did end up supporting.
In that way, poor Republican candidate quality hurt other Republicans, especially with independents and moderates, as my colleague Andrew Prokop has reported. Trump’s affiliation also weighed these candidates down, analysts at The Economist and the New York Times argue, and combined, you get a picture of a winning coalition: independent voters, and even some Republicans, feeling uncomfortable supporting Republican candidates and going with a safer, Democratic option.