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January 10, 2014 3:02 PM Abramowitz on the “Record Number of Independents”

By Ed Kilgore

Since this is a very familiar subject for him, I am unsurprised that Emory’s Alan Abramowitz is the first to offer a cautionary column about that Gallup survey showing a record 42% of Americans self-identifying as independents. Take it away, Alan:

Based on these results, Gallup’s managing editor, Jeffrey Jones, concludes that the increase in independent identification “adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections.” Jones goes on to argue that, “with Americans increasingly eschewing party labels for themselves, candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit.”
Don’t count on it. Despite Gallup’s findings, you won’t see a large number of successful independent candidates next November, nor will many Democratic or Republican candidates distance themselves from their own party on major issues. That’s because, despite the apparent rise in independent identification, Americans are actually becoming more rather than less partisan in their behavior. Yes, even “independents….”
According to data from the 2012 American National Election Study, the most prestigious academic survey of the American electorate, 87 percent of independent Democrats (i.e., independents who lean Democratic) voted for Barack Obama while 86 percent of independent Republicans voted for Mitt Romney. Moreover, 78 percent of independent Democrats voted a straight ticket for president, House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, as did 72 percent of independent Republicans. Independent Democrats were actually slightly more likely to vote a straight Democratic ticket than weak Democratic identifiers, and independent Republicans were only slightly less likely to vote a straight Republican ticket than weak Republican identifiers.

Alan’s making two equally important points here. The first is that a big majority of people calling themselves independents really aren’t anything of the sort when it comes to actual voting. And the second is that the stubborn tendency of some observers to think of independents as a “bloc” of voters (and perhaps the source of some mythical “centrist” Third Party) is totally off the mark:

Independent Democrats are much more liberal than independent Republicans on almost all major issues. In fact, these two types of independents share little in common other than the label.

So let’s not get too excited about the number of people who think it’s hip to self-identify as indies —or are to the left or right of their actual parties and call themselves indies in protest, without the slightest chance they’ll defect to the opposition.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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