This question has been answered affirmatively by most political scientists since the publication of the Myth of the Independent Voter in 1992. There are many comments on blogs that advise journalists and pundits to realize that the large percentage of independents (as many of 40 percent of respondents) in polls conducted to ascertain a person’s partisan affiliation does not truly reflect their voting behavior. That is, about two-thirds of so-called independents are “leaners,” which means that when they are pressed in a follow-up question, they will divulge a preference for the Republican or Democratic Party. Thus, only about 10 percent of independents are truly independent, or as they’re referred to, “pure” independents.
Recently, I had an exchange with Professor Steve Greene, whom I respect a lot, on his blog: http://fullymyelinated.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/election-night-losers/ . I contend, and have for some time, that leaners are partisan in their behavior because they recall for whom they voted in the most recent election. They are not partisans, and they should not be called partisans. Lumping them together with partisans deludes candidates and political operatives into believing that leaners have decided how they’re going to vote and that they are not available to be persuaded to vote differently. That is not necessarily true.
Recently, I discovered a book by Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee entitled Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate, which confirms much of what I have stated, although much more thoroughly and elegantly. A long quotation is in order:
These findings are, however, limited in a number of important respects. First, and most obviously, they only apply to white Americans. It should be clear that just because white Independent leaners “display an impressive tendency to vote for the candidate of the party they feel closer to” does not tell us a lot about the partisan proclivities of Latino, African American, or Asian American Independents (1992:65). If we are right, and the factors that drive party identification do differ across groups, this is a glaring omission.
Second, the analysis presented in the Myth of the Independent Voter and other accounts of Independents often fails to consider the full range of options available to nonpartisans in any given electoral contest. If, as we have suggested, neither party represents the interests of the multitude of Americans whose views do not fit neatly along the partisan divide, then logically we might expect many Independent voters to be searching for an alternative course of action (or inaction). Following the logic of Albert Hirschman (1970), we argue that assessments of the behavior of nonpartisans need to examine all of the options available including exit, voice, and loyalty. As we will see, under the right circumstances, Independent leaners are especially apt to not remain loyal and to choose either exit or voice. In presidential contests, for example, we will show that white Independent leaners are more than twice as likely as weak partisans to choose to vote for a third party. Similarly, since nonpartisans who are ambivalent and uncertain about partisan options have much less reason to go to the polls in the first place, it is not surprising that we find that leaners and other types of nonpartisans are quite likely to abstain from voting altogether.
Third, these findings tend to ignore the possibility that that the reason independent
leaners appear to vote consistently as partisans is that they lean to the party that they just voted for in the current election. Keith and his colleagues’ own data shows that from just one presidential contest to the next a surprisingly large portion of leaners – 30 percent – switched their votes and vote for the other party. Moreover, of these vote switchers a third altered their partisan leaning to match their vote change. Using a range of panel data, our analysis will show that much of the perceived loyalty of leaners to one party is illusory. [emphasis added)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all of this ignores context. How often nonpartisans express active support for candidates from one of the two major parties will vary significantly with the options that voters are afforded. Wolfinger and his colleagues and others who examine the partisan proclivities of Independents focus exclusively on cases where partisan defections are highly unlikely - elections where the two parties are dominant and where there is little incentive or opportunity to choose an alternate candidate or party. Thus, partisan voting among leaners may be less the result of affinity for a particular party and more the result of a lack of a viable alternative. The importance of context is evident even in Presidential elections – as we will see in Chapter Eight. In most Presidential elections, no third party candidate is even listed on the ballot across most states. In these elections, it is not surprising to find that few leaners defect to a third party. It is also not surprising to find that defections among leaners jump in Presidential elections which have third party candidates who are on the ballot across most states. Even though these third party candidates do not have a real chance of winning, roughly a quarter of all Independent leaners vote for the third party candidate in recent decades. In elections involving viable candidates who do not represent the two parties, we find markedly higher partisan defections among Independents of all stripes.
None of these criticisms refutes the fact that most Independent leaners in most elections will likely vote for the party they lean towards but they do raise important questions about just what Independence means across different groups and different contexts. They also suggest that it may be too early to categorize all Independent leaners as partisans and thus too problematic to simply lump leaners in with other partisans when analyzing party identification. [emphasis added]
I’m finding this book fascinating not only for its consideration of independents (including partisan leaners) but also in its development of a theory of party identification that is compelling. I strongly recommend it.