What would a Harris candidacy mean for the elusive independent woman voter?

The independent voter is the elusive prize in any election. This year, Democrats are hoping that widespread support for abortion rights will draw in women who might have previously shied away from the party.

But polling shows that independent female voters, a critical group for any candidate, are particularly unenthused about the prospect of choosing between the same two guys who ran for election last time. Now, with some Democrats publicly mulling replacing Joe Biden in the wake of his catastrophic debate performance and Kamala Harris emerging as a possible heir apparent, a key question is whether a Harris-topped ticket would provide them with some much-needed excitement.

Over the last two decades, the share of registered voters who tell pollsters that they identify as “independent” has crept up to roughly 30% of the electorate, according to April data from the Pew Research Center. But that number masks a basic divide among independents: although they are often thought of as centrists who flop between Republicans and Democrats, Pew found that all but 3% of self-identified independents lean conservative or liberal.

These individuals, experts say, consistently vote for one party but choose to call themselves independents because they distrust the party apparatus. Rather than a rebuke of US political polarization, the growing number of self-identified independents may be a symptom of it.

“The independent piece of the electorate is much harder to pin down, because this is the group to which people go when they’re dissatisfied with the two major parties,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. “That dissatisfaction can come from a lot of directions.”

Whether closet partisans or true swing votes, this group largely remains a mystery even to experts. Independent women in particular don’t tend to have much in common demographically, which makes their voting patterns hard to predict, Dittmar said.

Still, there are some key voting demographics that lean independent. Hispanic women make up a growing share of the electorate – Hispanic Americans will account for a record 14.7% of eligible voters in November – and they are increasingly identifying as independent, according to Eduardo Gamarra, who heads the Latino Public Opinion Forum at Florida International University. Like the rest of the country, they’ve become more and more frustrated with US politics.

“Over the last decade, they trusted American institutions more than [other Americans],” Gamarra said. “Now, we’re seeing that Hispanics are essentially the same [as other demographics]. They don’t trust parties. They don’t trust politicians. But this is especially accentuated with Biden and the Democrats.”

This could be a particular problem for Biden in Arizona, a major battleground state. A quarter of Hispanic female voters there say they are independent, while another quarter identify as Republicans and half as Democrats.

Harris has better a favorability rating among Hispanic and Black voters than Biden, according to recent polling by Politico and Morning Consult. But she doesn’t fare well among independent voters writ large: 62% think Harris is unlikely to win a presidential election, 51% think she would make a bad president, and 34% think she should be removed as vice-president.

As is so often the case, it might end up coming down to whether independent women are motivated to vote at all.

Self-identified, true independent voters – those who don’t lean in one partisan direction – helped shift the 2020 election in Biden’s favor, with 52% voting for Biden and 43% for Trump, after being evenly divided between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Exit polls indicated that, in 2020, 60% of female independent voters backed Biden.

But this year, independent women don’t seem driven to head to the polls. Compared with previous presidential elections, 31% of true independent women are “less motivated” to vote, more than Republicans or Democrats, according to recent polling from KFF (the Kaiser Family Foundation). Nearly 40% of independent women say they are “uninterested” in the elections. Just 21% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans feel the same way.

Since roughly a dozen states may have abortion-related ballot measures this year, including battleground states like Nevada and Arizona, Democrats hope that excitement around those measures – which have previously succeeded even in deep-red states – will boost voter turnout and translate to more support for Biden and Harris. Replacing Biden with a woman, like Harris or Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, could be especially helpful, said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Biden has insisted that he will stay in the race.)

“The messenger about abortion rights, the importance of abortion rights and things along those lines – it’s just a much more powerful message coming from a gen X-aged woman than an 81-year-old man,” he said.

But abortion may not be Biden and Harris’s silver bullet.

One in 10 female voters now say that abortion is their top issue, KFF found, ahead of issues like gun policy and the war in Gaza. But polling from KFF, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the firm PerryUndem all consistently found that abortion is less important to independent women than to their Democratic peers. Instead, KFF and PerryUndem polling indicates that the economy – already the top issue among most voters – is far more important to this group than any other issue.

Gamarra, in Florida, believes that his state will pass a measure to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. But he said that measure’s success won’t lead to increased support for Democrats among voters in Florida or in the other states set to have abortion-related ballot measures.

“They’re going to cross party lines to vote for the amendment, but then they’re going to remain as Republicans or as independents and they won’t vote for the Democratic candidates,” Gamarra said. “Especially, I would add, if the Democrats don’t solve their leadership issue very quickly.”

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