The Disaffected and Disengaged Independents
The final stop on our tour of independents takes us to the most inscrutable but no less important category of potential voters: the “disaffected and disengaged” independents. As established in earlier posts, of the approximately 4 in 10 self-identified independents among U.S. adults—those saying that they are neither a Democrat nor a Republican—about half of these may be classified as “we need more moderates” and another quarter as either “populist-left” or “populist-right” independents.
The final quarter of independents are the group of Americans most removed from politics as practiced today. For obvious reasons, researchers know the least about these disaffected and disengaged independents. These Americans dislike both political parties equally and are the most likely to answer “don’t know” or “no opinion” on surveys. Politics is irrelevant to their lives, and their overall interest in politics is minimal. These Americans occupy their time mainly with work and family-related matters and pursue other cultural diversions and interests as a means of escape from hectic, hard, or complicated lives.
If these independents vote or participate in politics at all, their decisions are based primarily on personal experience, intuition, and local concerns. When you talk to disaffected and disengaged independents, they are most comfortable relaying a personal or family story or describing something that happened at work rather than offering a concrete opinion about a topic. These impressions combine to form a worldview that is based on direct experiences in life—not on any one ideology or coherent set of positions—wrapped in a self-protective barrier of skepticism about politics designed to keep unpleasant, contentious, or annoying debates at bay.
Internal legislative wrangling, negative advertising, and forced “us versus them” partisan fights are of no interest to this group—and actively repel many of these independent voters.
For this group of independents, dealing with partisan politics is like encountering two crazy people arguing loudly in public. You don’t engage with them or try to defuse the situation as the moderate faction is prone to do. You don’t yell out, “You’re both idiots!” as the populists would. If you’re in the disaffected and disengaged group of independents, you stay clear of these crazy bickering people, keep your head down, and move on.
In focus groups, these disaffected independent voters are most likely to start the discussion by saying politics is totally broken and that no one is paying attention to what is really going on in the country—particularly on the economy. They are likely to tell a story about friendships or family relationships disrupted by political fights—either in person or on Facebook or some other social media platform—that made them deeply uncomfortable and more distrustful of engaging with others about politics. These independents often don’t know who they are going to vote for in the next election, and don’t think their vote will matter anyway.
By the end of a two-hour discussion on work requirements in social welfare programs, for example, these voters are the ones most likely to still have no firm position: “I don’t know. People should do their part. But they still need housing, food, and health care.” These independent Americans steadfastly refuse to accept the terms of political debates as presented by ideological factions of the two parties, and therefore avoid taking discernible positions on many public policy debates—a perfectly reasonable if inconclusive stand. Public policy questions are complex and difficult for most normal Americans (let alone policy elites) to fully comprehend. So, many disengaged independents choose to either ignore public policy issues altogether or withhold judgment in order to see what happens in practice.
These disaffected independents really don’t like the grandstanding national leaders and high-profile ideologues that occupy the minds of party elites, activists, and political journalists. If they are paying attention to political campaigns at all, these skeptical independents will be drawn to local leaders with interesting backgrounds or those who seem like decent and fair people working to make their communities better.
Rather than ignore these disaffected and disengaged voters, it would be smart for the two parties and their leaders to structure their policy pitches and issue positions in more relatable ways. Don’t just spew message-tested nonsense. Don’t use inflammatory language and force labels on people. Instead, pass on a personal or family story when describing a policy challenge. Use everyday words and examples to illustrate an issue more clearly. Share something interesting about the local community as it relates to an issue. Talk about other people’s views on a topic rather than just your own.
If you want to reach these Americans, try being a normal and approachable person rather than a calculating or robotic political type. It will go a long way with disaffected and disengaged people who care about their communities and country yet don’t care for the way modern politics is practiced.
Looking back at all 4 types of independents, the strategic lessons for the two parties seem straightforward:
First, recruit and run more moderate candidates and don’t allow the extremists to define the party brand. The largest chunk of independent voters—about half—want more moderates in politics and will reward those in the mainstream over those at the extremes. This is where most of the action lies in terms of convincing more independent voters that a party offers a safe hand.
Figure out what “moderate” means to this disparate pool of independent voters—e.g. moderate may imply a sentiment or personal trait desired in candidates, or it could imply a way of approaching politics with specific positions that blend traditional liberal and conservative ways of thinking—and deliver more of it.
“More moderation, less extremism” is a simple recipe for increased electoral fortunes among independents.
Second, don’t ignore the other half of independents who either desire a more populist approach or don’t like politics at all. In many electoral contexts, it is important to find candidates and leaders who don’t fit the mold of traditional politicians, such as those from working-class or small business backgrounds. Another rich person or lifelong politician selling the same old partisan snake oil doesn’t appeal to many independents.
Likewise, parties need to find candidates and leaders who really know their communities, genuinely connect with people on a human level, and personally understand the problems voters face and ambitions they have for the future. This is difficult to do since most normal people don’t have the time, resources, or interest to run for office. So, sustained recruitment efforts backed by real financial support for non-traditional candidates will be paramount.
Third, stop turning every political debate in the country into a grinding and mind-numbing ideological battle that mobilizes the most extreme elements of the party bases while alienating others. The overwrought “woke socialist” versus “MAGA fascist” framing of politics these days may inflame the diehards and fill up the party coffers. But this mode of politics turns off nearly everyone else in the country.
Party leaders can continue to force independents to choose between two unwelcoming and unimaginative party platforms and candidate slates each election cycle. Or they can acknowledge their poor image with many voters, adapt to the times, and widen their vision to include the perspectives of independent Americans not tethered to the normal partisan way of doing politics.
If the parties and candidates won’t change, don’t be surprised come election time if independents make voting decisions neither side likes or anticipates—or, if these Americans just decide not to participate at all.