NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Independent voters didn't pick Oklahoma's Democratic primary winner, analysis shows

Norman Neaves, of Oklahoma City, in the voting booth at precinct 416 in Oklahoma City in 2010. In the April 2016, Democrats allowed voters registered independent to cast ballots their party's primary election. The Oklahoman Archives
Norman Neaves, of Oklahoma City, in the voting booth at precinct 416 in Oklahoma City in 2010. In the April 2016, Democrats allowed voters registered independent to cast ballots their party's primary election. The Oklahoman Archives

After the Oklahoma Democratic Party announced last year that registered Independents would be allowed to vote in this year's Democratic presidential primary, many observers wondered how big a role those voters would play in the outcome.

The answer? Not big enough to swing the race.

An analysis performed this week by Oklahoma City-based polling firm SoonerPoll shows 34,436 registered Independents voted in the Democratic primary — too few to make up the 34,716-vote margin between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The small Independent turnout also appears to indicate that Sanders' victory was not fueled by a large groundswell of young and Independent voters as some had speculated, said Bill Shapard, founder of SoonerPoll.

In Oklahoma, Sanders' victory appears instead to have been driven by older registered Democrats, according to the analysis. That the contest isn't living up to preconceptions isn't a surprise to Shapard, who authored the analysis.

“This was a crazy election," Shapard said. "There's just no doubt about it."

The race marked the first primary election to be held since the state Democratic Party voted to open its primaries up to Independent voters last July. Russell Griffin, executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said he was pleased with the turnout.

“We had no idea what to expect," Griffin said.

Delegate distribution

While the Independent vote didn't change which candidate won, because Oklahoma awards its delegates proportionally, it's possible registered Independents could have affected how the state's 38 delegates will be distributed.

The analysis found that registered Democrats made up nearly 90 percent of voters in the Democratic primary, with registered Independents making up the remaining 10 percent. About 56 percent were age 55 or older, according to the study. Meanwhile, only about 15 percent were age 18-34. The analysis didn't examine how voters cast their ballots.

The study also showed that 53.4 percent of primary voters age 18-34 were registered Republicans. That trend shows that younger voters are almost as likely as their parents and grandparents to register as Republicans.

“Oklahoma is not a state like the coastal states or Illinois, for example, where the youth vote is predominantly Independent or Democrat," Shapard said. "Oklahoma is still a red state, no matter how old you are.”

Keith Gaddie, chairman of the University of Oklahoma's political science department, called the analysis "modestly surprising," saying it showed an ideological shift within the state's Democratic Party.

Although Socialism has a long history in Oklahoma — Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won 16 percent of the vote here in 1912 —  Oklahoma Democrats have for generations tended to be more conservative than the national party, Gaddie said.

The fact that Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, can win support among Oklahoma's Democratic voters shows that's no longer the case.

"An Oklahoma Democrat is a national Democrat now," he said.

Turnout surprise

Pat McFerron, a Republican pollster and consultant, said he was surprised the turnout among registered Independents was as high as it was.

Independent voters make up about 13.5 percent of the state's electorate, according to the state Election Board. But those voters tend not to turn out in large numbers in any election, McFerron said. 

Some voters register as Independents for professional or philosophical reasons, McFerron said, but most do so because they aren't engaged enough in the political process to pick a side.

That's become even more common since 1994 when the state began automatically registering as Independent any voter who didn't check a party affiliation box on the registration form.

Previously, county election boards would mail the paperwork back to the prospective voter with instructions to pick a party affiliation.

That change made it easier for voters to register as Independents, McFerron said, meaning many Oklahomans who received voter registration forms when they registered for food assistance, ended up registering as Independents simply because they weren't plugged in to either party. Voters who don't feel engaged in the political process often don't feel inclined to vote on election day, he said.

But Griffin said the party hopes to reach those voters who have been left out of the political process up to now.

By allowing Independent voters to cast ballots in the Democratic primary, party leaders hope to engage those voters, talk to them about what the Democratic Party represents and, eventually, turn them into Democratic voters in the general election.

Although the move could garner the Democrats a few more votes in the presidential election in November, Griffin said it could play a role earlier than that. Candidates who plan to run for legislative seats in the statewide primary election in June have already begun targeting registered Independent voters, Griffin said.

If those voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, Griffin hopes they'll feel invested enough in their candidates to turn out again during the general election.

Although only about 34,000 registered Independents voted in last month's presidential primary, Griffin said he hopes to see that number grow in the future. For now, he said, he's pleased with the direction the party is headed.

"I think it bodes well," he said.

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›