In 1960, three political scientists and a social psychologist from the University of Michigan penned a 573-page treatise called The American Voter, which continues to impact the political thinking of our day.1 One of the book’s claims was that most voters cast their votes based on their party identification, and that independents (at that time, only 23 percent of the voting population) are the least attentive to the political process. Partisans have long since referred back to this seminal work, and political scientists and pollsters have insisted ever since that independents aren’t really independent—they’re “leaners.”
Fast forward to 2022, where a new, comprehensive study of contemporary American politics has been published, The Independent Voter. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says in his review on the back cover, “The Independent Voter does a fantastic job chronicling the rise, and the power, of the fastest-growing segment of the electorate in the United States.” And a fascinating and instructive read it is. But just as interesting is who the authors are, and why they came together to write this book.
Thom Reilly is a Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, with a distinguished background in public service, including most recently as Chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education; Jacqueline Salit is President of Independent Voting, and one of the country’s foremost leaders of the independent voter movement who played a vital role in the presidential campaigns of Lenora Fulani and Ross Perot, and the mayoral campaigns of Michael Bloomberg; and Omar Ali, Dean of Lloyd International Honors College and Professor of African American political history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, whose independent political journey included working as a field organizer on Fulani’s 1992 independent presidential campaign.
Most recently, Reilly and Salit became co-directors of the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at ASU, a new opportunity for exploring who the independent voter really is.
These three authors might seem an unlikely partnership, but, it turns out, unlikely partnerships have been key to the history of our movement.
Full disclosure here. I worked behind the scenes on The Independent Voter between August, 2021 and May, 2022. My role included overseeing the benchmarks the authors had to meet to hit all the deadlines; conducting extensive research; creating thousands of endnotes; and copy editing. I got to live and breathe the book in its many iterations. I was immersed in FEC records, surveys and polls, and prior studies. Working closely with my intrepid colleague, David Belmont, we parsed statistics and extrapolated findings from data. I fretted over citations, commas, and conflicting styles from chapter to chapter. Some of the material was new to me and eye-opening; much of it was familiar due to my many years as a field organizer working in the trenches.
Since the book came out, I’ve had the chance to read it from a fresh perspective. One thing that strikes me most is how comprehensive a work it is. The Independent Voter covers the early history of the movement, which historian Omar Ali traces back to the 1840’s; documents study after study of independent voters; highlights the many misrepresentations and misconceptions that have been force-fed to us for generations; and details the nitty-gritty on the many lawsuits, legal challenges, and existing barriers to independent political activity. The book is studious and fact-based (I was one of the fact-checkers!). It also has heart and soul, with a timely foreword by Democrat-turned-independent Andrew Yang, who recently helped instigate the formation of the Forward Party, as well as a stirring afterward and poem by African American doctor and longtime independent activist Jessie Fields.
There are too many highlights from the book to list here, but one of my favorites is the chapter “Independents Speak: ‘We’re not a Party. We’re a Mindset,’” which contains statements by and photos of 23 diverse independents and their allies from around the country. In this chapter you can see, hear, taste, smell and touch the realness (we’re not leaners!) as well as the seriousness of a small but significant sample of diverse individuals who have chosen this path. As the book’s authors put it:
… one hears repeatedly their call for being treated with respect and recognized as independents—neither closet Democrats nor Republicans—and deeply concerned about moving the country forward in inclusive and democratic ways. 2
To paraphrase the famous editorial written in 1897, “Yes, Virginia, there are independent voters!”3
I’m grateful to have been part of producing this important book, and the long journey—with all its twists and turns down the independent road—and I’m ready and eager to participate in the creation of our next chapter.
Caroline Donnola, formerly the Executive Assistant to Jackie Salit, recently retired and is currently a freelance writer and editor.
1 Campbell, A., Converse, P.E., Miller, W.E., and Stokes, D.E. (1960) The American Voter (unabridged edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
2 Reilly, Thom, Salit, Jacqueline S., Ali, Omar H. (2023) The Independent Voter. New York: Routledge. Page 91.
3 Church, Francis Pharcellus, “Is There a Santa Claus?,” The Sun, September 21, 1897.