The Gallup Poll recently reported that the percentage of independents—people who don’t identify with a political party—reached an all-time high of 42 percent, eclipsing the percent of people who identify as Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (25 percent) and the highest percent since 1988. During the final quarter of 2013, 46 percent of Americans identified as independents. Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones notes that:
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.
Are Americans really abandoning an affiliation with political parties? Is that what’s happening?
At Monkey Cage, John Sides doesn’t think so:
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:
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.
So, does that mean that parties are alive and well, and Gallup’s concern about the rise in independents is hyperbole? But, on the other hand, Gallup attributes the rise of independents to “. . . Americans' record or near-record negative views of the two major U.S. parties, of Congress, and their low level of trust in government generally.” The attribution comes from Gallup polls on these topics. Surely this can’t be good, can it?
So, according to Sides, Americans may be saying that they’re independents, but behaviorally, most independents—that is, the partisan leaning independents—act like partisans; so that’s not really a problem. But I disagree, it is a problem in that it denotes a negative attitude towards political parties, members of Congress collectively as well as the institution, and the government more generally. Furthermore, independents—primarily “partisan leaners”—only act like partisans in terms of voting for one of the major parties most of the time. To which I would respond: “what other choice is there unless your vote is purely symbolic.” So given the choices and a desire to participate in the election, which candidate or party is the lesser of two evils? That’s the choice with which the independent voter is faced.
To help understand why more people are choosing to be independents, Hawkins and Nosek, in a recent article, provide reasons that people select for choosing to be an independent:
Most of the high percentage choices involve being free from affiliation or attachment to a political party. These people, whether partisan leaners or pure independents, don’t want to be attached to a political party. Just because they vote for one of the major parties most of the time, is it really appropriate to label them as partisan, or even to attribute partisan characteristics to them? There is also the question of how consistently partisan leaners are in supporting a party’s candidates. Hajnal and Lee provide the following critique of previous studies of independents:
Third, these findings tend to ignore the possibility that the reason Independent leaners appear to vote consistently as partisans is that they lean toward the party that they just voted for in the current election. Keith and his colleagues own data show that from just one presidential contest to the next, a surprisingly large percentage of leaners—30 percent—switched their votes and vote for the other party. Moreover, of these vote switchers a third altered their partisan leanings 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. . . None of these criticisms refutes the fact that most Independent leaners in most elections will probably vote for the party they lean toward, 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 with other partisans when analyzing party identification. (emphasis added)
To me, there is no doubt that people who answer the first question about partisanship by declaring themselves independents are, in fact, independents. Just because they are prodded with a follow-up question about leaning toward one party of the other, and with that prodding probably recall the party of their last vote choice, does not make that person a partisan. There is no doubt in my mind that these leaners differ from pure independents in important ways—more involved in politics, better informed, and more active politically—but it doesn’t change the fact that they lack a party identification and that strongly influences how they engage the political system.
So, what to make of the rise of independents? Political scientists need to pay more attention to independents—especially the so-called partisan leaners—and how they engage in politics and approach the political system. They are, no doubt, a heterogeneous group, but they can, by the issues which mobilize them and by the candidates to whom they are attracted, have an enormous effect of American and Texas politics and government and the institutional arrangements that exist. Let’s study them more rather than simply lumping them in with partisans. Hajnal and Lee’s book—Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate—provides an excellent start.