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The disappearing independent voter

Are you persuadable? A persuadable voter, that is. The research says, probably not.

There’s new research by political scientists at Berkeley and Stanford that says voters in general election campaigns are largely unpersuaded by political ads. And a lot of political pros say this matches with their experience in recent years.

The theory is that voters, even ones who say they’re independent, are so locked into their partisan habits that they’re not going to switch sides.

Now, to be clear, we are talking here about November partisan elections. It appears advertising, flyers, and door knocking can still change minds in primaries, nonpartisan elections, and ballot proposals.

Corwin D Smidt, a Michigan State University political science professor, calls this increasingly rare species of persuadables “the floating voter.”

“In regard to the persuasion effect,” he says, “partisanship is very strong right now, and this is in relation to my research, even people who claim to be independent show remarkably strong partisan attitudes. In fact, independents today seem to be more partisan than, say, strong partisans in the 60s and the 70s.”

Now, professor Smidt says that doesn’t mean there’s no role for ads, flyers, and one-on-one voter contact leading into the November elections.

But those tactics, to be effective, need to be directed more at getting supporters to the polls on Election Day rather than trying to persuade the center to tip one way or the other.

That helps to explain why Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette - who is running for governor in Michigan - has attached himself so strongly to President Trump. Trump is pretty unpopular right now among the general public but he’s still popular among Republicans.

And Democrats, if they turn out, are probably not going to be persuaded to cross over and support Schuette or whoever the Republican nominee is.

That also helps to explain why Democrats are getting behind a statewide campaign to boost the minimum wage in Michigan. It’s popular with their base.

But how about independents? Well, they may call themselves independent. That is not aligned with either - or any - party. But that’s not how they’re behaving.

Plenty of surveys show that even people who call themselves “independent” still stick with one party across most of the ballot in election after election.

But, even though true independents are becoming fewer and fewer, in a state like Michigan, they can be consequential. Just look at the margins here in last year’s presidential race. Michigan was very, very close. It is fair to say that every vote counted. And every vote helped determine the course of history.

Which is why persuasion tactics in the general election aren’t going away. There’s a saying in politics that 70 percent of what you do in a campaign doesn’t matter. You just don’t know which 70 percent until after a campaign is over. 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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