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 TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day 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 BidenSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Democrat representing Pennsylvania district Trump carried plans to vote to impeach  MORE are under pressure to shift leftward on a number of issues like health care as the campaigns of progressive Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Bill Weld: As many as six GOP senators privately support convicting Trump MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director 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 ClintonBiden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Clinton tweets impeachment website, encourages voters to 'see the evidence for themselves' 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 BennetYang: 2020 rivals in Senate should be able to campaign amid impeachment Trump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Schumer to colleagues running for White House: Impeachment comes first MORE (D-Colo.) or Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKamala Harris dropped out, but let's keep her mental health plan alive The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage The Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached 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.