Independents recast pollsters

This is what political scientists characterize as complex belief systems. All attitudes and opinions exist within a structure or framework that renders them logical, at least to the person who holds them. The problem is that one man’s elegant and logical belief system is another man’s spaghetti-strewn mish-mash. Consider an illustration from community leadership selection, with a wrinkle from Christian thought. Most of us look for leaders among those with the best educations, the most successful careers and the greatest charisma. But then a Christian sits in church on Sunday and hears a contrarian philosophy of “the last being first.” On Monday, that voter may also start looking for a humble and down-to-earth candidate. Seeking someone who is both humble and an achiever at the same time may create a belief system that defies easy analysis, unless you discover the Christian angle.

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Being in the polling business, and routinely wrestling with the seemingly disorganized and apparently contradictory views of the public, I used not to try to make excuses for voters, or even attempt to reconcile their odd opinions and attitudes. Instead, I just dismissed them as illogical, even uninformed and stupid. But over time I have come to respect the minds of most voters as more logical than we suspect. Now, whenever I cannot identify the logic or patterns that underlie a particular belief system, I write it off to my own shortcomings as an analyst. Somehow, someway, if you ask enough questions and poke around in their heads long enough, there’s sense in their ostensible nonsense.

I raise all this because the most important development arising from last Tuesday’s elections is the emergence of independents as the determinative force in elections. Independents, by voting almost 2-to-1 for Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey, turned over two governors’ mansions. This is particularly interesting because students of partisanship and opinions know that self-professed independents often have belief systems that are outrageously strange. While conservatives and liberals can neatly place themselves along an intuitive right-to-left continuum on issues like abortion, taxes, guns and size of government, independents are sometimes on a different plane altogether.

David Brooks of The New York Times said it well recently: “Independents are herds of cats who find out what they think through a meandering process of discovery.” If that is true, and I believe that it is, pollsters must become cat whisperers to do our clients any good. As independents become the most highly prized breed of voter, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

The first step to making any sense of independents is to recognize that there are different breeds within the species. Some independents are nonpartisan simply because they are too lazy to invest in figuring out which party makes more sense. Another breed of independents spends so much time on politics that they become viscerally anti-partisans, finding something in each party platform that is a turn-off. It’s really not that hard to do, if you try.

It’s also useful occasionally to credit independents for the simple belief systems many employ, as when most last week plainly cast their ballots just for partisan change at the top. Most knee-jerk partisans vote in a simple-minded fashion. Without our disdain, why can’t independents do so, too? Simple can be elegant and effective.

Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.

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