More on the role of independents in 2006

As some of you may remember, I wrote an essay after the election called "the role of independents in the 2006 elections has been overstated."  An excerpt:

The early storyline then is that the shift from 2004 to 2006 came about from how independents swung.  They did swing 17 points, from 48R/49D to 39R/57D.  But a far greater shift happened inside the two parties, where there was an 8 point shift within the Democratic electorate, and a 4 point shift inside the Republican electorate, or a total of a 12 point shift. The Democratic vote went from 89/11 to 93/7, and the Republican vote 93/6 to 91/8.   

While less in percentage terms this 12 point shift happened in what is 3/4 quarters of the electorate, and this 18 point shift happened in what is 1/4 of the electorate.   So this means a far greater number of votes shifted in the last two years between and among the parties than shifted with independents - meaning that Democrats owe their victory much more to gains with Democratic and Republican partisans than they do to the gains they made with independent voters. 

This reduced role for independents was evident even in 2004.  John Kerry did what every Democrat was told was necessary to do win the Presidency - he won independents - and yet he still lost the election.  Why? Because the Rove machine pushed the percentage of the electorate that was Republican to an all time high, 37%, equalling the Democratic share, and they kept 93% of these Republicans.  Kerry while winning independents, only won 89% of Democrats.  This difference - between Rove's 93 and Kerry's 89 within their own parties - cost Kerry the election. 

Over at OpenLeft, Chris Bowers revisits this analysis, and offers a slightly different cut:

By now, we have all heard about how the great Independent swing toward Democrats from 2004 to 2006 was the key to Democratic victory. This is something many of us saw coming for quite some time, and we even dubbed it the "Indycrat" phenomenon. The first article I saw on this was a June 2005 post by Jerome Armstrong. During the rest of that year, it was a topic that was discussed other places like Donkey Rising, Survey USA and many other election focused outlets.

However, at Yearly Kos I briefly chatted with Simon Rosenberg who asked me to look into whether, from 2004 to 2006, Democrats received a greater vote swing from self-identified Democrats or from self-identified Independents.  The reason he asked me to do that is because he believed Democrats actually received more of a boost from self-identifying Dems than they did from self-identifying Independents. While I was skeptical of this at first, I just looked into it now, at it appears Simon was right. Comparing 2004 and 2006 exit polls, here is the estimated swing Democrats received according to partisan self-identification:

Overall Dem vote increase: 5.15%
Growth from Dem's: 2.41%
Growth from Ind's:  2.08%
Growth from Rep's: 0.66%

No matter how you slice it, the 2006 elections were decided much more by the behavior of partisans than independents, who have shrunk to a mere 26% of the electorate.  What has happened in recent years is that the extreme partisanship of President Bush has forced people to take sides, and the number of independents in the electorate has shrunk, their role becoming much less significant.  For a while this all worked for Bush, but as the recent Pew Center Study showed, the electorate has tipped to the Democrats, going from 43-43 in 2002, to 50-35 Democrat/Republican today.  A remarkable shift.  In 2006 Democrats got 52 or 53 percent of the vote, the Party's highest performance since 1982, and one of its ten best showings in the last 50 elections. 

It is safe to say that today Democrats have more wind at their backs then they have since 1982, a long 24 years.  While it is no guarentee of future success, it is critical to note that we are experiencing the most favorable environment Democrats have seen in a generation, and that this environment has come about from both Republican losses and Democratic gains.  Whether this becomes a structural shift in public opinion is up to the Democrats and their leaders.  Certainly the opportunity is there, and all this explains why early polls showing Bloomberg doing much more damage to the Republicans than the Democrats.  The country is much more Democratic today, and that support is strong and holding.  There just isn't a lot of room left over for an independent bid.  What has become loosened - Ds, Rs and Is - has swung to the Democrats. 

For more on all this, check out my recent essay in the Politico, called the Democratic Opportunity.  More post-election analysis from NDN can be found here.