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There's a record number of independents in America — but partisanship is alive and well

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

During 2014, about 43 percent of Americans identified as political independents rather than Democrats or Republicans — the highest percentage in decades, according to a new analysis by Gallup:

Gallup indepdendents

As the chart shows, the increase in independents has been occurring since George W. Bush's second term. First, from 2005 to 2008, there was a sharp fall in the number of self-identified Republicans. The number of Democrat identifiers stayed mostly constant during the Bush years, briefly rose in 2008, and then quickly fell as Obama's presidency began. The share of independents has risen as a result.

Though comparisons earlier than 1988 are inexact because they involve in-person polling rather than phone polling, "it is safe to say the average 30% identifying as Democrats last year is the lowest since at least the 1950s," writes Gallup's Jeffrey Jones.

But the news isn't great for Republicans either. They increased from 25 to 26 percent of Americans in the past year, but both of those numbers are the party's lowest since 1983.

Still, this doesn't mean that people are ready to flock to a third party. As Jones writes, many self-identified independents actually end up largely voting for candidates from just one of the two major parties in the end.

Gallup's analysis didn't explore why more people may now be identifying as independents. But Charlie Cook wrote last year that, contrary to what you might think, these new voters might not necessarily be moderates turned off by polarization: "In fact, there is evidence that they are abandoning their party labels for the exact opposite reason: they see the party as moving too far from its core values." In other words, it may be Tea Partiers and liberals who are increasingly calling themselves independents out of disenchantment with their parties.

The data is aggregated from 15 Gallup phone polls throughout the year. Head over to Gallup for the full analysis.

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