More Americans now identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans. Gallup tracks independents at 42 percent and Pew at 39 percent, the highest percentages in more than 75 years of polling. This stunning fact snuck up on both parties and much of the media this election season. As voters flock to outsider figures Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the establishment and the media are flummoxed. But they shouldn’t be. The rise of independents is a phenomenon political science research showed was coming and will only continue.
We have spent the past several years studying how Americans feel about political parties and why so many of them proclaim they are independent. The result – published in our recent book Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction — is a complicated portrait of a politically diverse group of people.
We find that what distinguishes independents from partisans is not their political positions. In fact, most independents aren’t independent at all. They hold clear partisan preferences, but they utterly refuse to identify with their preferred party. Our goal is to investigate what makes independents so bashful and what this might mean for politics.
We find that many Americans are largely ashamed of the dysfunction in Washington. Rather than associate with candidates and politicians who are portrayed by media as stubborn and aggressive, a plurality of Americans would rather present an image of calm, cool independence.
Not only are Americans likely to present themselves as independent but they also prefer that others do the same. Independents are judged to be more likable, more trustworthy, and more physically attractive. They are preferred over partisans as discussion partners and workplace colleagues.
Below, we debunk some of the most common misconceptions of independents with our work and decades of academic research.
Myth 1: Independents are special
Every presidential election season, the breathless questions start from the get-go: What do independents think? Who will they likely support? Will they turn out? Pundits paint a picture of an important, distinct, yet elusive set of voters critical to determining who takes the White House. Unlike partisans, these voters are hard to pin down. They are special.
Independents are deeply interesting to academics like us. However, one of the best ways to annoy a political scientist is to call an independent special. Here’s why: In survey after survey, political scientists find that independents have political preferences that are largely identical to those of their partisan counterparts.
As we write in our book:
Independents, political scientists argue, are nothing more than partisans who don’t want to admit that they are partisans. Despite decades of surveys, political science articles and books that reach this very point, the media often trumpet independents as voters untainted by partisan bias, unattached and poised to change the course of history by voting for the candidate that makes the best case during the campaign. This type of coverage is frustrating for many academics.
The crux of this disagreement between the media and academics lies in how one defines an independent.
The simple definition of an independent is a person who does not affiliate with the Democratic or Republican Party. Some voters choose to register as an independent, but as far as political scientists and pollsters are considered, an independent is anyone who says she is an independent.
Most of what we know about independents comes from surveys. Originally, pollsters and political scientists merely asked Americans to identify as Democrat, Republican, or independent — no further questions asked. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that pollsters and political scientists began to press self-identified independents further, asking them for a bit more information. Specifically:
Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party or to the Democratic Party?
The introduction of this follow-up question meant that people could say they were independent and that they liked one party better than the other. And with that came the introduction of a group of people political scientists affectionately call leaners: independents who will admit, when asked, that they do in fact prefer one party over the other.
Leaners may seem like a friendly, best-of-both-worlds group of people, but their existence makes the "independent" substantially more difficult to define. The problem with leaners is that there is almost no difference between people who identify as partisans and people who say they are independent and then say they lean toward a particular party. More often than not, we can count on leaners to vote for that party, support the party’s positions, and sometimes even donate money to the party’s candidates. What’s more, leaners consistently support their party from election to election.
This has led some (but certainly not all) political scientists and journalists to suggest that independents who lean toward a party cannot truly be considered independents, but are rather just partisans in hiding.
Myth 2: A small subset of voters call themselves independents
The number of people who tell pollsters they are independent has been steadily increasing over nearly a century. Today they represent the largest proportion of the electorate. Gallup reports that in 2015, roughly 42 percent of people said that they are "independent" when asked a question about their party. Compare that with either Democrats (29 percent) or Republicans (26 percent).
Still, the difficulty in classifying who is and is not independent also makes it difficult to estimate how many people in America are actually independent. If we can’t count independents who lean toward a party as actual independents, then our count should only include people who report that they do not lean toward either party.
The very same Gallup data that demonstrates that 42 percent of people call themselves independents, for example, shows that only 13 percent of people are independents who don’t lean toward either party. By this definition, independents are a political minority, and while their numbers have increased over the past decade the increase has been very slight.
In short, like many political questions, the number of independents depends on whom you ask.
Myth 3: Independents are unbiased
We conducted more than a dozen experiments and surveys across the country and came to the following conclusion. To put it plainly:
Using large, nationally representative samples of American adults, we randomly assigned some to tell us how they might go about making the best impression on someone new they meet. Others were asked to explain how they could make the worst impression. A striking consensus emerged that identifying as independent makes the best impression and identifying as a strong partisan (either Democrat or Republican) makes the worst. Partisans admitted to us that even their own party affiliation makes a negative impression on others.
People want to present themselves in the most positive way possible, and being a partisan does not seem all that impressive. Much of what people see in the news about the parties is ugly. Candidates are angry, and party activists often seem stubborn and aggressive. As a result, it makes sense to tell people you are independent.
Our research suggests that people believe identifying as an independent makes the best impression on others. Independents seem calm and reasonable — we even find that people rate independents as more likable, trustworthy, and physically attractive. So why not say you are a political independent?
Myth 4: The rise of independents could give way to a third party
If so many people say they are independent, does that mean America will soon have a powerful third party?
In order for political independents to rise up and elect a third-party candidate, two things would have to occur. First, people who say they are independent would have to truly believe that neither of the two parties can effectively represent them. Second, the group of people who report that they are independent would have to have sufficiently coherent interests so as to coalesce around the same candidate. Both of these criteria suggest it is unlikely that people who call themselves independents will move America toward a third party.
To return to the now-common refrain, most independents actually lean toward a party and consistently support that party with their votes. More importantly, independents are actually a very diverse group of people with varying political interests. Some independents are conservative. Others are very liberal. And, of course, some independents identify as such because they hold no ideological preferences at all. The main thing that unites this group is the label "independent" — which is likely a dubious foundation for a third party.
This means the short answer to this question is probably not. Though, if there is one thing we have learned in 2015 it is that politics has a way of surprising even political scientists.
Myth 5: Independents decide elections
Judging from campaign news coverage alone, it might seem that an entire election can hinge on independents. Political commentators discuss whether candidates have done enough to convince independents to vote for them, and journalists seek out independents in order to figure out if they have been swayed by any particularly compelling campaign messages.
And, more importantly, independents’ ability to decide an election depends on whether they are actually attached to a party. If independents are largely blank slates, then of course their votes are unpredictable, and they could (theoretically) be swayed by any of the competing candidates.
If, however, people who say they are independent do have some preference for one party over the other, then they are not "up for grabs." Once people form a preference for one party, it becomes notoriously difficult to persuade them otherwise. In fact, people’s preference for one party over the other can lead them to dismiss messages from the opposing party no matter how compelling or well-thought out these messages may be. If Americans are merely hiding their party preferences beneath the label "independent," it is unlikely that they are open to being swayed by the party with the most convincing agenda.
As a result, even if the majority of people calling themselves independent voted for a particular candidate, it is difficult to conclude that this was due to the fact that this candidate’s message resonated with independent voters. Rather, it is possible that more independents voted for that candidate because independents were members of that candidate’s party all along.
Myth 6: Since independents are mostly secret partisans, we shouldn’t care about them
Given that so many independents prefer a party, and that they almost always vote for that party, one might wonder whether anyone should really care about independents. Certainly, journalists and political commentators could probably worry a little less about whether candidates are doing enough to reach independents at election time.
On the other hand, the fact that so many Americans are (even slightly) ashamed to admit their partisanship is, in itself, an important statement about the current state of American politics. And the growing number of independents should give both parties reason to do some serious soul-searching.
When Sarah Palin endorsed Trump last week as "a new and independent candidate," she was highlighting exactly how Americans’ rejection of establishment politics has changed the political landscape. While Trump stands out as the Republican anti-party partisan, Bernie Sanders, a registered independent and self-described democratic socialist, may be serving a similar role for the Democrats.
Sanders’s unwillingness to seek endorsements from groups like Planned Parenthood — groups that he argues are part of the political establishment — sends a signal about his "independence" from the existing partisan structure. Our research suggests that outsider candidates like Trump and Sanders are giving people something they have been craving: a chance to reject the partisan organization without leaving the comfort of their side of the political spectrum.
Independents are also important in other ways. As we discuss in our book, the same motivation that leads people to conceal their partisan preferences when asked a simple survey question also leads them to disguise their partisanship in other, more consequential ways as well. These people may hesitate to put up yard signs, avoid volunteering for campaigns, and even shy away from discussing partisan politics in public.
People who identify as independent – while secretly supporting a party – may vote for their preferred party, but they are of no help to their party’s candidate. As a result, elections become saturated with the voices of those who have no problem proclaiming their partisanship loudly and proudly — i.e., the people with the most extreme positions.
Myth 7: Independents are secretive
How can you tell if someone’s an independent? Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.
Given the adoration lavished upon political independents, they are a proud group. As we have found in our research, there is a near-consensus among Americans that independents are a very cool clique. So assuming you talk to your friend or neighbor about politics, you will most likely hear about their political independence.
But depending on the type of independent they are, they may or may not want to discuss politics with you. Leaning independents may, sometimes, be more politically interested and politically engaged than weak partisans. But political independence alone is usually not enough to guarantee that a person either knows about or is interested in politics. Moreover, these days many Americans – Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike – simply do not enjoy discussing politics at all.
Finally, if you believe that chatting with a self-identified independent may give you valuable political information, research suggests that you are probably better off not discussing politics with other people (be they partisans or independents) and instead should make political decisions on your own.
Myth 8: Independents are moderate swing undecided voters destined to change the course of history
Independents, moderates, third-party, and swing voters are often (wrongly) lumped together in various ways or even as one. Other times they are portrayed as political unicorns, poised to change the course of elections and therefore the very course of history.
Here is a brief rundown of the differences and similarities:
Moderate voters are just as frustratingly diverse as independents. And the two groups are not necessarily related at all.
If we imagine political ideology as a line that ranges from liberal on the left to conservative on the right, moderates can be thought of as those who place themselves somewhere in the middle.
Alternatively, a moderate voter can be someone who is clearly on the left or the right, but somewhat closer to the center on that particular side. We might call that kind of person a "moderate liberal" or a "moderate conservative." Yet another alternative is the conflicted ideologue — those who are conservative on some issues and liberal on others, and split the difference by identifying as "moderate." Finally, some moderates simply don’t know all that much about politics or policies and select this middle option in place of an "I don’t know."
Independents do not have to be moderate — in fact, many independents are not moderate at all. And many moderates are not independent, but rather affiliate with a party because they really feel like they fit in with that particular party socially.
Third-party voters are people who prefer a party that is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. Sometimes surveys don’t let people name a third party, so these people might say they are independent (or skip the party question altogether). Third-party voters are not necessarily independents (because they affiliate with party – just not one of the big ones), and they are not necessarily moderate. They may, in fact, be deeply ideological and potentially more extreme than either the average Democrat or Republican.
Independents do not necessarily support a third party. They might support the Democrats, the Republicans, or no party at all.
Swing voter is a term used to describe those voters who are open to persuasion during a particular election. These highly coveted voters have no strong partisan attachment and are ripe for the picking. They are not necessarily independents, nor are they necessarily moderates. They are merely undecided – and, realistically, they constitute a very small proportion of the electorate.
Undecided voters are possibly even more valuable to campaigns than are swing voters, as these are people who wait until the eleventh hour to pick a candidate. On the day before Election Day, the undecided voter is that man or woman interviewed on the news who still does not have the foggiest idea how he or she will vote. (Sometimes this indecision is a cause for mockery.) Independent voters are not necessarily undecided voters, and not all undecided voters are independents.
Myth 9: There’s no survey to figure out if I’m an independent
Unlike this very scientific test that determines which kind of sandwich you are, it is difficult to create a test that will definitively determine whether you are a political independent. But here, we come close!
Consider the following questions: Did you feel a sense of relief when Barack Obama won the election and a deep sense of sadness when John Kerry lost? Alternatively, were you relieved when George W. Bush won a second term, and are you still disappointed that Mitt Romney and John McCain lost their bids for the presidency?
Did you raise your eyebrows judgmentally when your colleague took a sip of coffee from his Bush/Cheney mug? Did you roll your eyes when you saw a Gore/Edwards sticker on the bumper of your sister’s new boyfriend’s car?
Do you find yourself thinking the following thoughts: "I used to like [insert celebrity here] until I found out that [he/she] supports the [insert party here] Party"?
Have you voted for the same party’s candidate for most of your (eligible-to-vote) life?
If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, then you are probably not an independent in the purest definition of the term. (Although people might still think you’re likable, trustworthy, and physically attractive – just not as much as they would if you were an independent.)
But does it mean you can’t identify as independent? Certainly not. One thing we have learned over years of researching America’s self-proclaimed independents is that independence is in the eye of the beholder. The odds are that you (like about 86 percent of Americans) do hold a (begrudging) preference for one party over the other. But don’t worry – your secret is safe with us.
Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov are authors of Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction, which was released today on Amazon.