Opinion: The people who will decide this election

Editor’s note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst and anchor for CNN. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


As independent voters go, so goes the nation.

That is a political truism backed by data. In our polarized era, independent voters provide a large portion of the swing vote between the two parties.

It makes sense: There are more self-identified independent voters than Republicans or Democrats, according to the latest Gallup poll. And there are now nine states where registered independent voters outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans — from much of New England to North Carolina to Colorado, Oregon, Arkansas and even Alaska. Their numbers have grown precisely as both parties have focused on playing the grassroots, a dynamic that The Washington Post describes as a side effect of divisive politics.

So how will independent voters make a difference in the 2022 midterm elections? Well, according to the latest CNN poll, 48% of independents say they will vote for the Republicans, and 45% will vote for the Democrats. While this finding is within the poll’s margin of error, it suggests Republicans will have an advantage on Tuesday.

It’s a decisive shift from the 2018 midterm elections, in which CNN exit polls showed 54 percent of independent voters favoring Democrats over Donald Trump’s Republicans, which led to the GOP losing 40 seats in the House of Representatives that year.

This trend of independent Democrats continued in 2020, when once again 54% of independent voters backed Joe Biden to make Trump president.

But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back. After all, in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 6 points among independent voters.

The shift of independent voters to the Republicans was a continuation of the Obama-era midterm elections: a 12-point margin in 2014 and a 16-point margin in the 2010 tea party wave election, according to exit polls.

That shift occurred when independent voters favored Barack Obama by 8 points over the GOP’s John McCain in 2008, and when they sealed the deal for Democrats in 2006 when they took back the House, they beat independent voters 57% to 39% in exit polls.

The pattern is clear: independent voters cast the key vote in American politics. But this view may come as a surprise to many academics and party professionals, who spend a lot of time between elections arguing that truly independent voters don’t really exist – they’re just “skinnier” – essentially party closets they don’t want to accept. him

As a result, in many polls, people who initially identify as independent voters are often asked a second time to pool their numbers for one of the two parties.

But this effort to dilute the true weight of independent voters ignores a broader trend. Independent voters were once an afterthought in American politics, and now the majority of millennials and Generation Z voters identify as independents. They are more representative of the general American electorate than Republican or Democratic voters, which also means they are not monolithic.

There are some independents who are conservative and some who are liberal, but the majority are in the moderate mainstream—less driven by an ideological political agenda and a desire to reduce polarization by counterbalancing the party in power, especially in an era of one-party rule. On Washington — Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post. because he broke it in a column on Sunday.

This instinct that divided government will provide a check on partisan excess is no longer true in the post-Trump era, where GOP moderates make up less than a quarter of his party. But this dynamic is helping to fuel Utah’s Evan McMullin’s independent bid for Senate to challenge GOP incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, giving residents of this reliably conservative state their first competitive race in decades.

America’s polarized and hyper-partisan politics is a major driver of our division and dysfunction. The rise of independent voters represents a healthy pushback against that dynamic, a demand for something else.

To the extent that red and blue states can deliver electoral surprises, while purple states control the US Senate and presidential races, closely monitoring independent voters will provide insight into the margin of victory and perhaps a more hopeful view of our political future.