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Did Independents Make a Mark in Iowa?

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Finally, the Iowa caucuses are done. The Republican field is narrowing (a bit), refocusing on New Hampshire and/or South Carolina. Some party pooh-bahs are ordering Romney/Santorum 2012 bumper stickers for the fall. Perhaps Ron Paul, representing the party's anti-establishment libertarian wing, has put a down payment on Paul/Paul 2016 bumper stickers. His bet may be when the conservative establishment fails to either win or to govern, that he and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, could be the beneficiaries.

So goes the Republican Party, for the moment. But what of independent voters -- the widely discussed but persistently misunderstood 40% of Americans whose disalignment from the major parties is a source of speculation and woe? Did they make a mark in Iowa on Tuesday, as they did so conspicuously for the insurgent Barack Obama in 2008? And, do the Iowa results provide us with new insight into the aspirations of this mass of anti-partisan Americans?

With respect to the first question, entrance polling puts the number of independents who voted in the GOP caucuses at about 23% of the turnout or approximately 28,000 voters. Ron Paul polled 44% of that independent vote, as compared with Mitt Romney's 18% and Rick Santorum's 13%.

Some Republicans are touting the independent turnout for the GOP caucus -- up from 15,000 in 2008 -- as a surge by independents towards the Republican Party. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican, told the Washington Post that these non-aligned voters "now will affiliate themselves as Republicans." Schultz should be reminded that neither the decisive independent surge for Obama in 2008 nor for GOP congressional candidates in 2010 resulted in a "conversion" of independents to either party. To the contrary, the size of the non-aligned voting block has grown steadily, reflecting the overall disillusionment with party-based politics.

Insofar as participating independents expressed a preference in Iowa, they sided with the anti-establishment Ron Paul. But the notion that the Iowa results provide a read on the sensibilities of independents overall is false.

First, a closer look at the numbers. Independent voter participation in the GOP caucuses might have been up as compared with 2008, but the participation by independents as a whole was way down. In 2008, an estimated 66,000 independents came out to vote in both parties' Iowa caucuses, more than twice the number of independents who chose to vote on Tuesday. In 2008, 75% chose Democratic balloting, and 41% of those voted for Obama. In other words, the conspicuous feature of Tuesday's Iowa caucus was the number of independents who stayed home.

The Democratic caucuses -- largely set up to recruit and train volunteers for Obama's re-election -- attracted a reported 25,000 people. No entrance polling was done at these sites, an indication that there was little or no expectation that anyone other than Democrats would show up.

Independent voters, a large, diffuse and unorganized base of Americans, are ideologically very diverse. Many have tried to categorize it -- largely as centrist or moderate -- and these analysts could not be more wrong. What's more, social conservatives have attempted to capture that movement time and again (Pat Buchanan in 2000, Sarah Palin in 2008, the Tea Partiers in 2009) without success. The Iowa results reflect a turnout by more right-leaning independents, about a third of the independent movement overall. Of these, the anti-establishment Paul captured the lion's share. Independents are almost universally anti-establishment.

For the Obama team, these results should be instructive. Though Iowa is more homogeneous (read: white) and evangelical (read: right) than much of the nation, and therefore its voting patterns are of limited applicability -- including for independents -- Iowa nevertheless underscores a picture they must consider. Traditional social conservatives cannot close a deal with independents. But progressives, like Obama, have done far less than they should to close theirs. Obama cannot allow himself to simply be the voice of the establishment, left, center or otherwise.

Though Democratic partisans will resist, Obama can make his own connections by backing the anti-establishment progressive wing of the independent movement. And he will have to embrace anti-partisan structural reforms to win their confidence. Independents -- the vast majority of whom were not spoken for in Iowa on Tuesday -- await his call.

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