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Most political independents actually aren't

- January 8, 2014

So Gallup has a splashy new headline: “Record-High 42% of Americans Identify as Independents.” And this graph:

Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones writes:

Americans are increasingly declaring independence from the political parties. It is not uncommon for the percentage of independents to rise in a non-election year, as 2013 was. Still, the general trend in recent years, including the 2012 election year, has been toward greater percentages of Americans identifying with neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party, although most still admit to leaning toward one of the parties.

That last statement is important. Most self-described “independents” do lean toward a party. This other graph by Gallup is really the more important one:
Party Identification (Including Independent Leanings), Annual Averages, Gallup Polls, 1991-2013
Why is it more important? Because independents who lean toward a party — or “independent leaners” —  behave like partisans, on average. They tend to be loyal to their party’s candidate in elections.  They tend to have favorable views of many political figures in their party. They are not much more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. To be sure, independent leaners are not as partisan as the strongest partisans. But they resemble weaker partisans much more than they do real independents. In actuality, real independents make up just over 10 percent of Americans, and a small fraction of Americans who actually vote.
These findings are all based on what voters report in surveys. The same is true if partisanship is measured in a subtle, implicit way. Here is the conclusion of a notable study:

Reporting an Independent political identity does not guarantee the absence of partisanship. Independents demonstrated considerable variability in relative identification with Republicans versus Democrats as measured by an Implicit Association Test…To test whether this variation predicted political judgment, participants read a newspaper article describing two competing welfare or special education policies. The authors manipulated which policy was proposed by which party…Regardless of the policy details, these implicit partisans preferred the policy proposed by “their” party, and this effect occurred more strongly for implicit than explicit plan preference. The authors suggest that implicitly partisan Independents may consciously override some partisan influence when making explicit political judgments, and Independents may identify as such to appear objective even when they are not.

A second key point: In many other respects, voters are not “declaring independence” from political parties.  In fact, the American electorate is much more partisan than in the recent past.  Consider these points:
1) The number of “pure” independents is declining.  It was nearly twice as high in the early 1970s as now.
2) Partisan loyalty in presidential and congressional election is on the rise.  As a consequence, split-ticket voting is in decline.

3) Partisanship and ideology are much more aligned than they used to be — a trend that only helps to strengthen partisanship and party loyalty. Partisans like each other a lot less.
4) Partisans report less favorable feelings toward the opposite party and express more distress at the thought of their son or daughter marrying someone of the opposite party.
None of this is surprising, given the well-documented polarization among Democratic and Republican party leaders.