Not much, really.
Katherine Gregg has a short bit in yesterday’s Providence Journal Political Scene about the change in unaffiliated voter proportions from 2010 to 2014. And while it’s interesting that unaffiliateds were a greater proportion of primary voters in 2014 than in 2010, this fact doesn’t really tell us much.
First, definition of terms. In Rhode Island, voters are not members of a political party, they are affiliates of a political party — in Rhode Island legal terms you can designate your affiliation. What that means is clear as mud, but at the very least I feel safe saying voters in Rhode Island technically are not “independents” since all voters in Rhode Island are independent of a political party. Only candidates who run without affiliation to a political party are independents. Yes, this is incredibly pedantic, but it’s been done, and I’m about to further confuse this whole issue because nationally, the conversation is all about “independent voters” (which again, is not an actual category in Rhode Island).
Anyhow, the problem with comparing the differences in unaffiliated turnout is that 2010 wasn’t a very interesting primary. Why was voter turnout higher this year? The honest answer is we don’t really know. But we can hazard a few guesses. My leading guess is that 2014 had four candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and two candidates in the respective Republican primary. Both races were closely covered. On top of that, we pretty much had contested races for all the statewide offices in the Democratic primary, with the exception of Attorney General. All that contesting means a lot of voter contact, a lot of money spent on get-out-the-vote operations, and a lot more people showing up to the polls.
Unaffiliated voters are fascinating in Rhode Island because the form the largest voter designation in the state yet we know very little about them. It seems some folks in the state suggest that Rhode Island’s unaffiliateds are more likely to vote for centrist candidates. But that’s not what the consensus among national political science is; it’s generally the consensus that political independents are mostly die-hard partisans in all but name. In fact, one study found that many independents who merely “lean” towards one party or another are actually more in line with that party’s platform than those who self identify under the party name.
Until we take the time to really drill down on what they believe and how it affects their voting, how many unaffiliated voters vote or are registered isn’t much more than a trivial fact. It’s an incredible group to have, but it’s still a massive enigma.