American elections are getting less predictable; there's a reason for that

Much has been written about the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey and what they mean for the Democratic and GOP brands heading into the midterms. Most share two core assumptions: The Red vs. Blue paradigm is still the most accurate way to understand political outcomes, and the increasingly unpredictable gyrations of voters are but a natural pendulum within two party political life.

Polls are routinely wrong — by wide margins. Voters seem to be acting and reacting to a new set of rules and concerns. Political analysts should be asking “What’s going on? Do we need new ways and new tools to understand voters? Is something happening in America that we don’t quite get?” But that’s not what’s happening.

Case in point is how the analyst community relates to independent voters.

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The largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate is now independent voters: 40 percent to 45 percent of American voters are registered to vote or identify themselves as independents, a trend that is on the uptick in red, blue and purple states. This includes 50 percent of younger Americans. In the 30 states that register by party, “no-party-affiliation” voters are on track to be the largest or second largest group of registrants by 2030.

Most political scientists and analysts consider this trend to be unimportant, not worth studying or understanding.

Some go so far as to insist that independents are not really independents. They are “party leaners.” It is standard practice among polling firms to ask people how they identify themselves, and then to ask people who say “independent” which party they lean towards. Thus, an electorate that is 40 percent independent, 30 percent Democratic and 30 percent Republican magically becomes an electorate that is roughly 50 percent Democratic and 50 percent Republican.

Political science insists that the voters should fit the analysis, not the other way around.

It’s a clever trick. And it works in the short term. You simply reclassify independent voters as Democratic or Republican fellow-travelers and then feed their views and opinions into the existing algorithms and analytical frameworks. You generate end-product that seems to make sense: “Democrats need to distance themselves from woke extremism;” “Republicans should emphasize small business recovery and less regulation.” It works.

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And yet it doesn’t.

We live in an era of insurgencies. Outsiders like Ross Perot, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew year brings more liberated Joe Biden  After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage MORE, Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats call on Biden to step up virus response We are America's independent contractors, and we are terrified Overnight Health Care — Biden's Supreme Court setback MORE, AOC, Andrew YangAndrew YangBottom line American elections are getting less predictable; there's a reason for that Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE (to name a few) dominate the political landscape. They tap into ... something. A desire for disruption, a hunger for cross-ideological (even contradictory-ideological or non-ideological) forms of political expression, a craving for authenticity over platform consistency. I won’t slap on convenient labels nor attempt to link these disjointed uprisings into one cohesive narrative — but it seems obvious to me that an analytical approach that insists upon ignoring significant shifts in how the American people identify themselves is going to miss the mark when it comes to understanding this current/emerging era of insurgency and disruption.

In Virginia, independent voters, who supported Biden by 19 points over Trump in 2020, supported Republican Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinWhy our parties can't govern Some in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump Youngkin signs executive orders banning critical race theory, lifting mask mandate in Virginia public schools MORE over Democrat Terry McAulliffe by 9 points — a 28-point swing. Many young people — the majority of them independents — stayed home. Insisting that independents are “partisans lite” covers over a very fluid and dynamic situation. What a missed opportunity to dig deeper into what’s going on.

The decision to register to vote as an independent has consequences. It makes you a second-class citizen in many states, unable to vote in primaries, serve on boards of elections, or even work the polls. You are legally barred from running for judge in Delaware if you are not a Democrat or Republican. Despite the costs, Americans are increasingly choosing this identity.

My experience, as someone who has led dozens of campaigns to give independents full voting rights in primary elections, is that voters who identify and/or register to vote as independent do so for concrete reasons, ranging from the mundane to the profound. Political analysts should be jumping over each other to dig deeper into this emerging phenomenon. Instead, independents are — poof — disappeared with the click of a button, magically to reappear as partisan leaners. Problem solved. Opportunity missed.

There is something going on in American politics. Understanding that it starts with listening to the American people, millions of whom are going independent would be a start. They have a lot to say. And we have much to learn.

John Opdycke is the President of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization.