Political Animal


January 09, 2012 1:20 PM ‘Independents’ Day

By Steve Benen

Gallup has a new report out this morning on how Americans identify themselves when it comes to political party. The results are generating a fair amount of interest, but I’d add a note of caution about the nature of “independents.”

Gallup finds 40% of American self-identify as independents, the highest percentage Gallup has ever measured since it began keeping track. Democrats are a distant second with 31%, with Republicans third at 27%.

What this doesn’t tell us, though, is that the definition of “independent” is far too vague to be of any real value. John Sides had a piece a few years ago that’s worth revisiting.

[H]ere is the problem: Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter.

When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the “independent leaners.” … The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s. […]

The significance of independent leaners is this: they act like partisans…. There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans.

Note that the new Gallup poll shows 40% of Americans self-identify as independents, but when leaners are pressed into one side or the other, the number drops to 10% — exactly where Sides said the number would be when he wrote this more than two years ago.

A variety of pundits will frequently characterize “independents” as a group of “moderate” or “centrist” voters — as if the right sides with Republicans, the left sides with Democrats, and the middle stays “independent.”

That’s a common belief, but it’s also wrong. The Washington Post published a lengthy analysis of political independents in July 2007, based on a survey conducted by the Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The result was a pretty straightforward reminder: there’s an enormous amount of political diversity among independents.

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

The new Gallup numbers shouldn’t change our sense of the current political landscape much at all.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • DAY on January 09, 2012 1:28 PM:

    The label "Independent" allows one one to engage in public discourse, without being thought to be a Bigot, Communist, Nazi, or Tree Hugger.

  • SteveT on January 09, 2012 1:31 PM:

    Spot on!

    I'm an independent because the Democrats are too damned conservative. If I joined the Democratic party I would be obligated to support whichever DINO manages to win a Democratic primary.

    As an independent, I can target my contributions to true progressives.

  • c u n d gulag on January 09, 2012 1:36 PM:

    I would add a 6th category of independents:

    Woefully ignorant/stupid people who feel obligated to vote.

    And these people get their information in the last possible minute from the opinions of their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, who are not much better or brighter than they are, and who then fill their empty heads with BS from their own favorite talk radio hosts, TV news shows, and Op-ed writers.

    This country might probably be a much better place if these people completely opted out of the election process.

  • Lucia on January 09, 2012 1:55 PM:

    Did the poll break the independents out according to how they lean? If not, it doesn't tell us much.

    That's your point, I realize, but I would be curious to know how much support each party has among self-identified independents. I'm independent, that is unenrolled, myself, which in my state means I can vote in either primary, and in any state means I don't identify with either bunch of self-aggrandizing jackasses.

  • Booch221 on January 09, 2012 1:57 PM:

    So what is the breakdown of these "closet partisans"? D or R.

  • Dee on January 09, 2012 1:58 PM:

    I apologize if you're already aware of this, Steve, but everytime I click on your site, I get a malware warning from Google...

    [I noticed the same thing this morning when I logged on from one of my computers, but not from the others so I didn't think much of it since that one has multiple failsafes and firewalls, but I will report it to the webmaster since someone else had the problem as well. --mod]

  • hells littlest angel on January 09, 2012 2:06 PM:

    The vast majority of people who call themselves independents do so because they think it sounds good. It's nothing more than that, personal branding.

  • Mudge on January 09, 2012 2:14 PM:

    There's that pesky 27% again.

  • Mitch on January 09, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Yeah, this is me all over. I am registered Independent, but donate to D's and Progressive causes, and have voted Dem in every election since my first. If asked by a pollster, I'll describe myself as Dem.

    I just don't like the idea of belonging to a party. I'd rather have the illusion of free choice, I guess, than feel obligated to support any group.

  • antiquelt on January 09, 2012 2:36 PM:

    I switched to independent because i was feed-up with the gutless, clueless, leaderless democrats caving into the BSC(bat-s...-teabaggers all the time.

  • DP on January 09, 2012 2:41 PM:

    In the context of modern two-party elections isn't ten percent a decisive number of voters for victory? I trust the judgement of Mr. Benen and I'm sure he's figuring in some subtle factors of which I am not aware, but if ten percent of voters are truly independent then that seems pretty significant on its face.

  • SecularAnimist on January 09, 2012 2:43 PM:

    It's interesting that the Gallup poll offers three choices -- Republican, Democrat or "independent" -- with no option to identify as a "partisan" of any other political party.

    I'm not a Democrat, or a Republican, or an "independent" -- I'm a registered, card-carrying, active member of the Green Party.

    According to Gallup, I don't exist.

  • smartalek on January 09, 2012 2:45 PM:

    Living in The People's Republic of Massachusetts, I get to register -- temporarily -- as a member of whichever party has a primary in which I want to participate. That meant Publican in... what year was it again in which "Pitchfork" Pat Buchanan won NH? And also in 2000, when my vote for McCain (he was very different then, ok?) had more meaning than a vote for or against Gore would have done. And Dem in most other years.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on January 09, 2012 2:48 PM:

    @ c u n d gulag

    Thank You .

    Seriously I get so aggravated that when mouth breathing idiot has a microphone shoved in his face 1 day before the election (like in 08) and says Uh... Uh... I haven't made up my mind yet. The next follow up question from the interviewer should be . How the fuck do you find the door in the morning when you have to leave the house.

  • dj spellchecka on January 09, 2012 2:49 PM:

    my pet peeve is that gallup never offers regional crosstabs with these studies...

    for example, obama lost independents in all the southern states, including two he won, except for florida and won them in all the northern states.

    the term doesn't seem to have a "national" meaning

  • T2 on January 09, 2012 2:57 PM:

    DAY has it right.

  • SYSPROG on January 09, 2012 3:51 PM:

    I am a registered INDEPENDENT in Washington State since 1972 when it used to matter. That allowed me to study the platforms and decide who was closest to my philosophy and yes I was in college at the time. That being said in my old age I am a closet partisan...or not so closet since I can't imagine ever voting for a Republican in my lifetime. But I DO like thinking myself an 'Independent'...

  • schtick on January 09, 2012 4:21 PM:

    I decided to register as independent because the dem party seems to be made up of spineless twits and lord knows, spineless I'm not. I do tend to lean towards dems because they may be on the take along with the repubs, but they at least make an effort to support the working class. Not by much, but they do.

    crapcha....experiment iducul....you don't see me experiment!

  • Chrisbo on January 09, 2012 6:23 PM:

    While they may be closet partisans now, I don't doubt that if a viable third (or fourth) party that represented their views emerged, that tenuous link to the existing parties would disappear.

  • evodevo on January 09, 2012 7:29 PM:

    Yeah, one of my coworkers kept saying she "votes for the person, not the party", except that she hasn't voted in an election for the ~10 years she's been there. I doubt if she's even registered.