What Are Independent Voters’ Burning Issues?

After impeachment, their second-most important topic is the separation of immigrant children at the border.

by Lynn Vavreck, John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch

After we recently wrote about the priorities of Democrats and Republicans using data from the Democracy Fund + U.C.L.A. Nationscape Project, readers had two main questions for us. The answers may provoke more questions.

Readers wanted to know what was important to independents, defined for the purpose of this study as people who leaned neither Democratic nor Republican (leaners were included in our previous article). They make up about 9 percent of the survey. Impeachment was the highest priority for them among topics we asked about, which included those related to health care, abortion, taxes, foreign policy, immigration and the environment.

As with our previous article, we used conjoint experiments (people reveal the topics that are important to them by making repeated choices between collections of outcomes offered to them). Among nearly 50 outcomes we asked about, the impeachment issue was the most important one for Republicans and the second-most important for Democrats.

Although impeachment of the president is a big issue for independents, unlike partisans they do not lean overwhelmingly in one direction. Among those with an opinion, 55 percent are in favor.

The second-most important issue for independents is the separation of immigrant children at the border — an issue that was first in importance for Democrats and 19th for Republicans. Independents tend to agree with Democrats: 84 percent of independents with an opinion on the matter oppose separating the children from their families (compared with 92 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans).

The third-most important issue for independents is whether we should live in a country that has a total ban on guns. This issue was second in importance for Republicans and 28th for Democrats. Like 89 percent of Republicans, most independents (80 percent) don’t want a total ban on guns. While the issue is far less important to them, Democrats don’t either (68 percent against).

The top three issues for independents make clear why it would be hard for this group to fold into either party. On their second- and third-most important issues, independents resemble Democrats on one and Republicans on the other. On their highest-impact issue, they are split about whether it should happen, a mash-up of positions from both parties. These patterns of cross-party similarity continue as we move down the list of topics important to independents.

Whether to completely ban abortion ranked fourth in impact for independents and third for Democrats (77 percent and 87 percent against) while coming in at 13th for Republicans (65 percent against).

In fifth place for independents was building a wall on the Mexican border — another issue important to all groups. Republicans want it (81 percent for), Democrats don’t (86 percent against), and independents are in between, but significantly opposed (64 percent against). Rounding out the top 10 high-impact issues for independents were debt-free state college, a $15 minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, conducting universal background checks before gun purchases, and banning assault rifles. These are also relatively important issues for partisans.

Like partisans, independents reveal that they will sacrifice other things to get what they want on their high-impact issues. They will give up preferred outcomes on things like the Green New Deal (their 36th-most important issue), even though 63 percent of independents like this idea.

There are things on which Democrats, Republicans and independents agree, but most are relatively low priority for all three groups, which may explain some legislative gridlock.

For example, each group supports requiring companies to give 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to employees (84 percent of independents, 90 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans). But it is the 22nd-most important issue for independents and the 19th and 29th for Democrats and Republicans. Even though people agree that this should be the law, they care more about other things on which there is far less agreement in the population.

The highest-ranking issues on which there is lopsided agreement among voters are support for universal background checks for guns (eighth-most important issue for independents at 93 percent support, fifth for Democrats at 96 percent, and 24th for Republicans at 90 percent) and giving a pathway to citizenship to so-called Dreamers. This is the 14th-most important issue for independents (83 percent in favor), the eighth-most important for Democrats (92 percent in favor), and the 27th-most important for Republicans (69 percent in favor).

These results hint at why progress isn’t being made on these issues. Most are not priorities for any group, and even those important to one group are not so for others. This pattern makes the role of independents in the electorate important: They may swing between the parties from election to election as the focus of each election changes.

Independents on average have a collection of high-impact policy preferences that are somewhat of a sampling of things that majorities of Democrats and Republicans prefer, making it hard for them to fit in one party or the other. On other issues, as a group, their positions are in between the two parties.

In the absence of a party cue to guide them, and with positions common to both parties, independents may cast ballots based on issues that candidates are able to make salient in any given election.

Come up with the right package of issues, and either party could find independents who are on the fence swinging in their direction.

Lynn Vavreck, the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at U.C.L.A., and John Sides, professor of political science at Vanderbilt, are co-authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” Follow her on Twitter at @vavreck and him at @johnmsides.

Chris Tausanovitch is an associate professor at U.C.L.A.’s political science department. Follow him on Twitter at @ctausanovitch.


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