Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight has helped unravel one of the great mysteries of Campaign ‘16: Who are the self-identified independent voters Bernie Sanders is carrying so heavily in primaries and caucuses? Are they swing voters who might well swing to Donald Trump in a general-election contest with Hillary Clinton, or stay home in large numbers?
According to the Gallup data Enten is looking at, no, they’re not.
Sanders’s real advantage over Clinton is among the 41 percent of independents who lean Democratic, with whom he has a 71 percent approval rating as opposed to HRC’s 51 percent. Among the 23 percent who do not lean in either party’s direction — the stone swing voters — Sanders’s approval rating is 35 percent, virtually the same as Clinton’s 34 percent (both are much better than Trump’s 16 percent).
But aren’t a lot of the leaners swing voters, too, particularly if their favored candidate does not win the nomination? Probably not:
In the last three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate received the support of no less than 88 percent of self-identified independents who leaned Democratic, according to the American National Elections Studies survey. These are, in effect, Democratic voters with a different name.
Yes, Clinton may need to work on this category of voters, but the idea that they are unreachable or likely to defect to Trump doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. These aren’t left-bent voters who have lurked in hiding for years, waiting for a Democrat free of Wall Street ties or militaristic tendencies, and they’re not truly unaffiliated voters who will enter the general election as likely to vote for a Republican as a Democrat. They’ve been around for a while, and in fact they are being affected by partisan polarization more than the self-identified partisans who have almost always put on the party yoke. So while a majority of these Democratic-leaning independents clearly prefer Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, they represent a reservoir of votes that are ultimately Hillary Clinton’s to lose.