Pennsylvania – the State of Independents
Across the United States, our politics have hardened into the metaphorical equivalent of World War I’s Western Front. In our contemporary case, red soldiers and blue soldiers grimly face one another from across their partisan foxholes, gaining inches of ground one day only to surrender them the next – all while causing great collateral damage to the nation and our politics.
Such is the case in Pennsylvania, long the home of center-right and center-left politics, where the best political leaders – like my father, Dick Thornburgh, governor from 1979 to 1987; Ed Rendell, governor from 2003 to 2011; and Arlen Specter, U.S. Senator from 1981 to 2011 – played to the middle of the political field, what we now call the “purple.” But in today’s Pennsylvania, the purple can only be seen from 50,000 feet; on the ground, most political districts tend to be dark red or dark blue. In this year’s marquee races for governor and Senate, both sides seem intent on maximizing their political bases, squeezing every last voter out of the progressive left and the reactionary right.
But one group, representing millions of Pennsylvanians, has not gotten the attention it deserves, even though there’s evidence that, as the only persuadable voters left, they can swing big elections. About 20% of Pennsylvania voters self-identify as Independents, and 14% are registered as something other than Republican or Democrat (a remarkably high number, given that the state’s primary elections are closed to all but Republicans and Democrats). Pennsylvania’s Independent ranks have swelled in the wake of increasingly extreme partisan politicking. (While there is no official designation of Independent in Pennsylvania, for our purposes we identify Independents as those not registered with a major party, regardless of whether they have registered as unaffiliated or registered with a minor party.)
Look at the 2016 presidential election in Pennsylvania, won by 44,000 votes, and the 2020 election, won by about 80,000 votes. It was self-identified Independents that won Pennsylvania for Donald Trump in 2016 – and their fifteen-point swing in 2020 that won for Joe Biden.
However, despite the tremendous importance of the 1.2 million Pennsylvanians who are registered independents, they remain a group poorly understood and often ignored – again, because their votes don’t count in critical primary elections. So who are they? What is their political ideology? And, as some suggest, do they just make up their minds case by case, or are they in fact “closet” partisans?
Ballot PA, a civic group I chair, is pushing hard to end closed primaries in Pennsylvania and bring Independent voters into the Pennsylvania primary electorate. We believe that every voter deserves the right to cast a ballot in every election. Former state party chairs and Ballot PA spokesmen Alan Novak (Republican) and TJ Rooney (Democrat) argue that ending closed primaries is not only the right thing to do, but – from their parties’ perspective – the smart thing to do. The major parties should be welcoming unaligned voters to the primary polls as a chance to grow their ranks.
We know that Independent voters are less partisan than their Republican and Democratic counterparts, though Pew research shows that nationally, the majority of Independents (81%) lean toward a major party – 46% lean Democrat, while 35% lean Republican. Our research suggests that Pennsylvania Independents may lean more Republican. Still, Independent voters tend to self-identify as moderate at disproportionate rates. While only 37% of all voters identify as ideologically moderate, 43% of Independents nationwide identify themselves as moderate, with 52% of Pennsylvania Independents describing themselves that way.
Gallup research has revealed that nationally, self-identified Independent voters represent the largest segment of the electorate, at 43%, vs. 27% Democrats and 27% Republicans. It’s a proportion that has been growing steadily, even in the few states like Pennsylvania that exclude these voters from primary elections. Between 2017 and 2021, Independent registrations in Pennsylvania grew by 4% and accounted for 22% of all registrations. Independent and minor-party registrations were among the fastest-growing segments, outpaced only by Republican registrations in that time. Their growth is derived from both new registrants – national Open Primaries research suggests that 50% of first-time registrants are registering as Independents – and from current voters switching to Independent from one party or another.
Among these switchers, from 2008 to 2020, the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania had been consistently losing more registered voters than the Republican Party to the Independent ranks. That trend reversed itself in 2021, when more Republicans switched their registration to Independent. While no county lost more than about 0.5% of its Democrats to non-affiliated status in 2021, almost 1% of registered Republicans in the southeastern counties (led by Chester County, outside of Philadelphia) changed their registration that year to Independent. Only 17 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties saw Democrats lose a higher percentage of voters to Independent status than Republicans did in 2021.
Depending on the cycle, across the country Independent voters now vote in general elections at a rate about two-thirds that of major party registered voters. That percentage would undoubtedly increase in Pennsylvania if Independents were welcomed into the primary process. Given the hotly contested nature of recent elections in Pennsylvania, higher turnout from Independent voters would be crucial for both parties’ electoral success.
Independent voters in Pennsylvania are more concentrated in Southeastern and Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos, and a few college towns like State College and the Oakland area of Pittsburgh. These voters also seem to be more concentrated in some cities, like Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, and York, that have seen rapid growth in their Hispanic populations, which may reflect how Hispanic voters in Pennsylvania are much more likely to register as Independents.
Veteran Status, Age, Race, Gender
One of the most striking statistics is that, nationally, one in two veterans identifies as a political Independent – a statistic that prompted Vietnam veteran and Pittsburgh Steeler great Rocky Bleier to call Pennsylvania’s closed primaries as “un-American.”
In Pennsylvania, Independent voters also tend to be younger, more male, and more likely to be from immigrant communities. Asian-Americans voters are 85% more likely to register as Independents, and Hispanic voters are 38% more likely.
Independents tend to be younger than most voters; partisanship seems to be an acquired habit. A statewide poll for Ballot PA by Osage Research found that 58% of Pennsylvania Independents were younger than 55, with 26% in their late thirties and early forties – the upper end of the millennial generation.
Pew Research finds that nationally, Independents are 56% male and 44% female, a gender breakdown notably more male than for either major party. Given that the national electorate is only 47% male, and the Pennsylvania electorate 48% male, men are overrepresented among Independent voters.
Perhaps most important in these divided times, the ideological moderation of Independent voters can help lower the temperature of our political dialogue and push us back toward a politics based on persuasion. That sounds more like the democratic republic that our Founding Fathers had in mind.
David Thornburgh is a longtime Pennsylvania civic leader. The former CEO of the Committee of Seventy, he now chairs the group’s Ballot PA initiative. He is the second son of former GOP Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.