Joe Biden: President of Independents
Moderate independents flipped on Trump in 2020. Biden is now focused on keeping them heading into 2024.
It’s official: Joe Biden is running for reelection as President of the Independents.
Independents swung 10 points towards Biden in 2020 — and along with them came the White House.
Biden’s union with the voters who ultimately put him in the White House has had its ups and downs. Support for the president among that key swing bloc has waned through much of the last two years, giving way to headlines like “Independents have turned on Joe Biden,” “Why independents have cooled on Biden,” and “Biden Has Slipped With Independents, Can He Win Them Back?”
The answer to that last question — whether Biden can win independents back — will determine if a moving company will replace rioters in January 2025.
Here’s what we know about independents and what moves them.
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As Independents Go, So Goes the White House
It is true that every vote — and therefore every voting bloc — matters when the margins are as close as they are in today’s elections. When final electoral college tallies are decided by just 40,000 votes across three ultra-competitive swing states as they were in 2020, it’s legitimate to say that demographic slices such as “young voters” or “college educated voters” decided the race.
But persuasion matters at least as much as turnout. To the extent that any one cohort of voters could have swung toward the right but broke for Democrats instead in 2020, those are independents.
In 2020, Biden made critical gains with independents and those who had voted third party in 2016. According to Pew Research, whereas independent voters broke for Donald Trump by just one point (43% to 42%) in 2016, they broke for Joe Biden by nine points (52% to 43%) in 2020, making the difference in key states.
In a post-election report for Brookings, Bill Galston sums up these critical shifts:
As his supporters for the Democratic nomination had hoped, Joe Biden appealed to the center of the electorate across party lines. He did 10 points better than Hillary Clinton among Independents, and he doubled her showing among moderate and liberal Republicans.
Indeed, Biden’s overperformance among independents and center-right crossover voters are the reason why he won commandingly at the top of the 2020 ticket while Democrats simultaneously underperformed down-ballot that year and lost seats in the House.
Independent voters were also instrumental in 2022. Whereas viral headlines proclaiming that “Young Voters Saved the Democrats” in the midterms were dubious and overstated, those arguing that “Independent Voters Saved the Democrats” were right on the mark.
The party owes much of its better-than-expected performance in 2022 to these voters. In a deep dive for Vox, Christian Paz lays out the data on the most competitive Senate races of the cycle, noting that the AP’s midterm survey “found that independents broke for Democrats by nearly 20 points” nationwide in the midterms:
Arizona: Mark Kelly won 55% of independents (who made up the largest share of the state’s electorate at ~40%)
Nevada: Catherine Cortez Masto won 48% of independents while her GOP opponent won 45% (Paz notes that this “included strong independent support in the swing Washoe County,” which Cortez Masto won in 2022 but had lost in 2016)
Georgia: Raphael Warnock won 53% of independents
New Hampshire: Maggie Hassan won 54% of independents (independents make up a plurality of voters in the state)
Pennsylvania: John Fetterman won 58% of independents
Independents drive nearly every key Democratic victory.
Independents Are (Mostly) in the Middle
Volatility, not polarization, is the defining feature of modern politics. If there’s one thing that comes across in independents’ ten-point presidential swing (R+1 to D+9) from 2016 to 2020, it’s that these voters can move between parties.
Just as the 2020 presidential campaign was kicking into gear, the political scientist Alexander Agadjanian conducted a survey experiment to see how voters were responding to the Democratic primary debates. The debates made for a particularly strong barometer on ideology because of the extent to which they were dominated by progressive groupthink, with candidates racing to the left.
Agadjanian summarized his findings in the New York Times’ Upshot:
The embrace of progressivism solidifies support among Democratic survey respondents when thinking about the 2020 general election. But it repels independents, with a negative effect that is stronger and clearer than the signs of enthusiasm generated among Democrats.
He continued by highlighting the centrality of independents in deciding the upcoming election, and how those who read stories about the Democrats’ leftward turn during the primary debates were turned off by them:
When deciding between Mr. Trump and the Democratic nominee, voters in the middle — the independents who could ultimately tilt things in Mr. Trump’s favor — became six percentage points less likely to vote Democratic after reading about [Democrats’] leftward turn compared with the independents who had read the innocuous content.
Agadjanian’s findings in late 2019 spurred the inception of The Welcome Party, which launched shortly after to engage independent voters and encourage them to participate in open primaries in two critical early states: New Hampshire and South Carolina.
These findings also align with public opinion research conducted on independents at large. As John Halpin writes in a recent piece for The Liberal Patriot, these voters want to see more moderation from both parties, especially Democrats:
Independents, on the other hand, mostly believe that both Democrats and Republicans need more moderates: 54 percent of independents feel that Democrats need more moderate candidates while 49 percent of independents feel the same way about Republicans… Combined, these findings suggest that the largest percentage of independent voters—around half—desires more moderation in American politics, understanding that the term “moderate” itself probably connotes different things to different people.
Data from the massive 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES) bears out that independents are simultaneously a more middle of the road and less ideological cohort than partisans, with a plurality (44%) rating their own ideology as “middle of the road” and the second largest group (20%) saying they are “not sure” about their ideology. By contrast, only 24% and 4% of Democrats say the same, respectively, as do just 15% and 7% of Republicans.
Are independent voters a coherent ideological voting bloc in the same way as the far-left or far-right? No. But is there a coherence to the independent center that can be moved with great electoral effect and must be more deeply understood? Yes!
A recent academic paper, titled simply Moderates, makes this clear. Despite being understudied, moderates are (nearly) all-powerful in both elections and effective government:
Moderates appear to be central to electoral change and political accountability. The respondents we classify as moderate are more responsive to features of the candidates contesting elections than lever-pulling liberals and conservatives. We estimate that their vote choices in U.S. House elections are four to five times more responsive to the candidates’ ideologies than are the choices of liberals and conservatives, two to three times more responsive to incumbency, and two to three times more responsive to candidate experience.
These findings help resolve a puzzle. Research on aggregate electoral behavior … shows that candidates benefit electorally from ideological moderation, yet many studies conclude that vote choices are highly partisan. We find that the moderate subset of the electorate responds to moderation and to candidate experience. As the old saying goes, ideologues may vote for a “blue dog” as long as that dog shares their views. But, the moderates in our analyses seem to care that the candidate is, in fact, a dog.
Moderation wins the middle and overperforms in swing races — and independents are the middle.
Back to the Center
After running a big-tent campaign and welcoming independents in 2020, Biden spent the first two years of his presidency dreaming big and passing major legislation (much of it bipartisan). Suddenly, in the aftermath of the midterms, the president is said to be “pivoting to the center” on key issues — from climate and oil drilling to immigration and border security to crime and public safety.
When we wrote a few weeks ago on Biden’s hallmark big-tent approach, we quoted Jonathan Chait on potential reasons for the president’s apparent shift to the middle. Chief among them is a recent sea change among top White House personnel:
Biden’s departed chief of staff, Ron Klain, attended fastidiously to progressive groups, making them not only feel valued but possess real influence. His successor, Jeffrey Zients, keeps much more distant relations with the professional left…
An important frame for understanding this move is that a savvy president who won independents in 2020 is again moving to rekindle that flame heading into 2024. Chait notes the top-down nature of Biden’s decision:
It’s less that Biden is moving to the center because he replaced Klain with Zients, than he replaced Klain with Zients because he had to move to the center.
Biden’s pivot to the center as a play for independents is further bolstered by public opinion research. In fact, the president’s recent swings to the middle on climate, immigration, and crime are generally aligned with the views of independent voters:
Climate: One of the big decisions at the core of Biden’s center pivot was his decision to approve of the Willow Project, a significant oil drilling project in Alaska. The project has sparked controversy on the left, but 2022 CES data shows it’s likely supported by most independents. The survey found that independents overwhelmingly support “increas[ing] fossil fuel production in the U.S. and boost[ing] exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas” by a margin of 62% to 37%.
Immigration: Biden has taken a more centrist stance on immigration, “turning toward tougher policies to stem a near-record-high tide of illegal immigration, including possibly reviving the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the southwestern border illegally.” This, too, appears to align with CES data on independents, among whom the vast majority (68%) support “increas[ing] the number of border patrols on the US-Mexican border,” with only 32% in opposition.
Crime: Biden ruffled feathers when he opted not to veto the GOP-held House’s resolution to override the city of DC’s newly-overhauled criminal code, which would have (among other things) eliminated mandatory minimum sentences and reduced maximum penalties for crimes including robberies, carjackings, and murder. But independents are more moderate on the issue of crime. According to the CES, while Democrats are largely opposed (62% to 38%) to “increas[ing] the number of police on the street by 10%,” independents are evenly split on the question.
All of this indicates that Biden and his team understand what too few on the left do: turnout among the base is important, but it is not enough to win.
If Democrats are going to keep the White House out of the hands of the authoritarian GOP in 2024, they must rebuild their bona fides with independents and show them that they see them and share their values.
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