Partisan divisions sharpen as independent voters fade

The number of pure independent voters is dwindling, leading to an increase in partisanship as both Democrats and Republicans move to rally their bases ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

A Pew Research survey released in March found that 81 percent of voters who called themselves independents actually lean toward the Republican or Democratic party, leaving only 7 percent of Americans who say they don’t lean toward a party.

Strategists say that trend is reflected on the 2020 trail, where President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE has been primarily focused on rallying his base, using a number of tactics such as calling for a wall along the southern border and attacking prominent Democrats. 

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Meanwhile, Democratic presidential contenders are increasingly moving to the left on issues such as health care and tax policy, reflecting a party that is more progressive and younger. 

Moderate candidates like former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE are under pressure to shift leftward on a number of issues like health care as the campaigns of progressive Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a 'liar' and a 'clown' at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: 'I've got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready' MORE (I-Vt.) continue to gain in popularity. 

The shrinking number of pure independent voters is a trend that pollsters have noted over recent years as a swath of voters who call themselves independent actually lean toward one party or the other, leaving only a declining number of pure independent voters.

“The vast majority of that group will lean to one of the two parties. We often talk about when we report our findings, we often combine Democrats and Democratic-leaners and Republicans and Republican-leaners,” Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, told The Hill. 

The decreasing number of independents comes after the 2016 general election ended up hinging on a small group of voters in a handful of battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that tipped the race to President Trump.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton after debate: 'Everyone better vote' Hillary Clinton: 'Black Lives Matter' is 'very profoundly a theological statement' House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power MORE, the 2016 Democratic nominee, was widely seen as having lost due to Trump’s presence in those three states, as well as to lower turnout from key constituencies like African Americans. 

The battle in 2020 so far has been marked by rising partisan rhetoric from both sides.

Trump and Republicans have branded Democrats as “socialists” or accused them of having radical ideas, like “Medicare for All” and increased gun control measures. 

“It’s in the Republican interest to nationalize races,” Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, told The Hill. “They want everyone thinking that Democrats are just way too crazy, progressive, extreme on the coast, don’t care about anyone else but the liberal elite.” 

“It is a strategy to pull everything down into the mud,” he continued. 

On the Democratic side, Biden has been the front-runner in the race according to national polls, but Warren has seen enthusiasm around her campaign rise, becoming one of the former vice president’s main rivals.   

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Meanwhile, moderate candidates like Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Next crisis, keep people working and give them raises MORE (D-Colo.) or Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court removes Pendley from role as public lands chief | Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions | 1 in 4 adults cite climate change in decision not to have children Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions Court removes Pendley from role as public lands chief MORE (D), who would have traditionally best appealed to more-independent voters, have floundered in the race. Both were unable to qualify for the debate stage last week and continue to poll among in single digits at most.

“You’ve got a handful of the underdogs who are trying to persuade independents like Sen. Bennet and Gov. Bullock,” Jennifer Holdsworth, senior vice president of issues management at MWWPR Public Affairs, said. 

That is not to say, however, that Democratic and Republican voters are all sharply partisan.

Self-described independents still comprise a large segment of the voters in 2018, but they tend to lean toward one party or the other.

Fifty-four percent of Republican-leaning independents said they voted in the 2018 midterm elections compared to 61 percent of Republican voters, according to Pew. 

At the same time, 48 percent of Democratic-leaning independents said they voted in 2018, compared to 59 percent of Democrats.

Thirty-three percent of independents with no political leaning said they voted in the same midterm elections, according to the survey.

Pure independent voters, though dwindling in numbers, can more easily influence races at the congressional level, according to strategists, especially in swing districts that have a large number of less partisan voters who are swayed by local issues.

“There’s a large swath of persuadable independents that congressional candidates are still trying to appeal to. It’s much less about a base vote unless you’re in a primary in a very safe, blue district,” said Holdsworth at MWWPR Public Affairs.

Approaching these voters means focusing less on Trump, unlike the 2020 presidential race where defeating — or reelecting — the president  is the primary issue.

“When you’re running as a Democrat, people know where you stand on Trump, you’re not going to change their mind,” he said. “What you need to do is talk and connect with voters about the issues that matter to them,” said Dietrich.