Skip to content

Sinema aligns with independents. Smart!

It’s just more proof that 2022 was the year of the independent

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema seems to understand that independents are the voters to watch when it comes to both parties’ chances in 2024, Winston writes.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema seems to understand that independents are the voters to watch when it comes to both parties’ chances in 2024, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Party switchers always make news, and Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party for the independent middle ground has sent shock waves through what was thought to be a settled Senate.

Clearly, Democrats aren’t happy, but if they see her defection as nothing more than another quirky decision by their most unconventional of colleagues, they will continue to misread the election results as some kind of great Democratic victory. They should reread her statement on becoming an independent. 

“It’s no wonder a growing number of Americans are registering as independents,” she wrote. “In Arizona, that number often outpaces those registered with either national party. When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans. That’s why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.” 

Her surprise announcement reflects what has been a largely overlooked political milestone for independents this year. The 2022 election marks a historic high point for independents, going from 27 percent in 2020 to 31 percent of the electorate this year, according to preliminary data from the Edison Research national exit poll. Before this election, the largest percentage that independents had comprised in an election from 1984 forward at the congressional level was 30 percent in 1990, 2016 and 2018. 

Independents are clearly a growing force to be reckoned with for both parties. But despite a better-than-expected performance by Democrats in the election, the exit polls also show the Democrats’ percentage of the electorate at 33 percent, a drop of 4 points since 2020 and the lowest we’ve seen over the past 20 election cycles at the congressional level, again from 1984 forward. 

Republicans, who made up 36 percent of the electorate, had a significant party ID advantage. Their problem was an inability to reach independent voters with a message that resonated with them — that and the fact that the unpopularity of Donald Trump with independents has only increased over the past two years, possibly to a point of no return. His favorable/unfavorable numbers with independents, along with Biden’s, paint a bleak picture for both potential candidates.

In 2020, Trump’s favorable/unfavorable with independents nationally was 40 percent/58 percent, or -18 points. This year saw his unfavorability with independents slump to -36 points. In Arizona, his favorability with independents hit a significant low, going from -13 points in 2020 to -35 points in 2022. 

Biden doesn’t do much better with independents in his favorable/unfavorable nationally, going from +6 in 2020 (51 percent/45 percent) to -23 points this year (37 percent/60 percent). Those numbers, I suspect, are not lost on Sinema. 

Her statement acknowledges the increasingly important role of independents, in a way many of her colleagues, Democratic and Republican, have not. Instead, they continue to legislate to appease their base while she focuses on independents. So, it’s hardly surprising that once again she has Washington wondering: Just exactly who is Kyrsten Sinema?

Is she just a political opportunist, in the mold of Arlen Specter, seeing a tough primary on the horizon and jumping ship symbolically to the middle? Ironically, Specter switched parties to avoid a GOP primary with Patrick J. Toomey, only to lose the Democratic primary. Sinema’s supporters would argue that the always controversial senator is a principled maverick in the tradition of John McCain and Joe Lieberman. 

For years, McCain faced harsh criticism from some within his own party, but he never rejected his Republican roots. When Lieberman lost his primary, he ran as an independent, and he kept his seat but also his allegiance to the Democratic Party. Sinema says she will likely continue to caucus with the Democrats, just as Lieberman did.

Over the decades, Congress has seen both parties abandoned by sitting members, some for ideological reasons. Liberal Republican Jim Jeffords comes to mind. His decision to become an independent gave control of the Senate to the Democrats in 2001 and upended the confirmation process of George W. Bush appointees. 

Years earlier, the switch went the other direction when then-Democratic Rep. Phil Gramm resigned his House seat after his fellow Democrats ousted him from the Budget Committee for his support of Ronald Reagan’s economic theories. Gramm promptly declared his intention to run as a Republican in the special election to fill his seat and won overwhelmingly.

If Democrats put up a candidate in the primary against Sinema, two outcomes are possible in the general election. Sinema and the Democratic candidate could split the vote and the Republican candidate would win the race. That scenario assumes Arizona Republican primary voters have learned the hard way that bad candidates and campaigns lose elections and would choose a candidate acceptable to independents next time around. 

If Republicans don’t learn that lesson and ignore independents, Sinema will have the opportunity to put together a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Whether Sinema’s switch is political or ideological or maybe a little of both, it is the final proof point that, in fact, 2022 was the year of the independent. What we don’t know yet is whether the movement we saw this year, as the percentage of the electorate for independents increased and for Democrats decreased, reflects a political moment in time or a trend that will negatively impact Democrats.

The other “unknowable” is whether Trump’s presence will continue to drive independents into the Democratic camp as we saw in 2022, even though they preferred Republicans on key issues. 

Sinema’s decision may be anecdotal, but it is still a powerful commentary on the state of politics in the country today. Democrats didn’t win a great victory this year. When you lose one of the houses of Congress, it’s never a good day.

“It could have been worse” is probably a good, operative phrase for both parties. Democrats can claim whatever “victory” they want, but it had more to do with ineffective GOP candidates and campaign messages in key states — coupled with Trump’s inability to rehabilitate his standing with independents — than voter enthusiasm for Biden or his policies.

Kyrsten Sinema seems to understand that looking ahead, independents are the voters to watch when it comes to both parties’ chances in 2024. She may be unconventional, but she’s also a smart politician who understands her electorate. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

Recent Stories

Does Joe Biden need a miracle or just a bit of good luck?

Graves decides not to run after Louisiana district redrawn

Garland won’t face contempt of Congress charge over Biden audio

Hold on to your bats! — Congressional Hits and Misses

Editor’s Note: Mixing baseball and contempt

Supreme Court wipes out ban on ‘bump stock’ firearm attachments