The Independents Strike Back

California’s Central Coast Monterey Pine Tree has developed a unique method to propagate the species. It does this by sealing its pine cones with protective resin. When exposed to heat, they release their seeds. The serotinous sentinels, having cleared the brush by fire, are now better placed to grow new plants.

California’s conflagrations are more frequent than elections, so the November Tuesdays that occur don’t necessarily bring about a complete political party-wide catastrophe. However, the unexpected 2021 win of Glenn Youngkin (a GOP outsider) over Terry McAuliffe the Democratic nominee in Virginia’s gubernatorial election was welcomed by left-leaners within the political class.

We wrote, “Democrats should go back in school.” Washington Post columnist James Hohmann. New York Times editorial board business and economics writer Binyamin Appelbaum produced a damning post-election video pointing out that “it is in the blue states where affordable housing is often hardest to find, there are some of the most acute disparities in education funding, and economic inequality is increasing most quickly.”

James Carville, the irresponsible Democratic strategist was more direct, telling Judy Woodruff that “What went wrong? This stupid wokeness.” Carville added: “Don’t look just at Virginia or New Jersey. Take a look at Long Island. Look at Buffalo. Then take a look at Minneapolis. Seattle, Washington. I mean, this defund-the-police lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools…people see that, and it…just really [has]It has a suppressive affect all over the country [for] Democrats. Some people in this group need to be referred to a woke detox centre or other similar services. These people are using language they don’t understand, which can lead to backlash and frustration.

The parties of first-term presidents tend to take a drubbing at the ballot box in non-presidential-election years. Since World War II, only one rookie president has seen his party gain congressional seats in his first midterm elections: George W. Bush in 2002, at the height of post-9/11, pre–Iraq War fever, and his GOP gained just eight seats in the House of Representatives. Their parties lost an average 29 House seats. The 11 other first-term presidents also saw their parties losing 29 House seats. Three out of four of the most recent presidents suffered losses of at least 29 House seats: Barack Obama’s 53 in 2010; Bill Clinton’s 52 (1994); and Donald Trump’s forty in 2018.

It’s intuitively obvious that elections, which ostensibly have nothing to do the White House, are becoming more referenda about the chief executive of the country. It is so fast that the federal government has become an insurmountable entity in fiscal 2021, which amounts to $2.77 trillion, more than all of the annual federal spending since 1997 (adjusted for inflation).

Unchecked, the commander in chief has now been empowered to kill or indefinitely detain U.S. citizens. The surveillance state routinely collects information on all communications activity, regardless of warrant. His administrative control state has been a free-floating enforcer for presidential whims. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept a 12-month national eviction moratorium and the vaccination mandate the Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed to private business in November.

Because the power of the capital has grown, journalistic and civic activity has declined in the hinterlands. As a result, political energy and attention in these anxious times are inevitably focused on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This is why midterm swings are larger or state and local politicians attempt to focus their campaigns on the current (or former) president.

It’s wrong to view these changes as a set of laws that will continue regardless of the individual’s free will. Swing voters are necessary for elections to be able to move from one party or another. These swing voters are often mocked by people who work in politics. However, they have an alternative name: independents.

Even the narrowest definition of this bloc—people who vote for third-party and independent candidates—reveals an outsized influence on elections. The non-traditional voters for the presidency shrank from 5.7% (including 3.3% for Gary Johnson), to 1.8% between 2016 & 2020. Trump, on the other hand, gained just 0.8 percentage points while Trump’s percentage of popular vote increased by 3.1 percentage points. Exit polls for 2020 revealed that 59% of major-party returning voters voted in favor Biden.

This trend was reflected not just in 2020 pre-election and exit polls of 2016 third-party/independent voters but also in the attitudes of more broadly defined “independents.” Gallup and Pew ask respondents to identify their political affiliations. Gallup’s 1988 survey revealed that “independent” is the most popular answer. Gallup has gotten the No. 1 response in all of its surveys since 2013. It reached a record high of 50% in February 2021.

Pew reports that Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 among self-described independents, 43 percent to 42 percent. This bloc did not give Trump a higher job approval than 47 percent during his turbulent presidency. Nine out of ten Republicans gave him thumbs up every time.

Biden began his term with a approval rating of 61 percent among independents, something that Trump couldn’t even dream about. Then it dropped to just 34% by October 2021. The attitudes of unattached people are crucial in today’s negatively polarized world, where party members will stand behind their opposition. Overall approval is dependent on these independents. The 46th president has had the worst first-year approval ratings, in the low 40s, of any modern president—except Donald Trump.

Political commentators have been writing headlines like “The Myth of the Independent Voter,” which is because the bloc has a variety of ideologies and political preferences. Additionally, there are internal clumps within the group that vote for the same party throughout elections. Both critiques are true. They miss the point.

Government overreach—in overall size, in meddling with private transactions, in regulating our intimate decisions, in punishing disfavored groups—can be likened to a forest fire: Eventually, it will burn high and hot enough for even the apolitical to feel the flames. It will take us a while to discover and debate what has happened to the rose among independent voters that seeded the Democratic losses in November 2021. Political professionals from all walks of life need to learn a simple lesson. If the government feels too unsafe, then a group of corrective voters will pour cold water over you. In a period of multi-party big government populism such tiny victories might be all that is needed to keep us moving.