A new poll from Gallup shows that the share of Americans identifying as "independent" is at an all-time high of 40%. Though many political consultants and political scientists have long argued that independent voters are a myth - I disagree. In a forthcoming paper for Third Way I will present a more detailed argument for the importance of independent voters and even independent partisans - especially for Democrats. I further explore the issue in a book that I am writing with Steve Schier, the book, America's Dysfunctional Political System, is due early next year from Routledge Press. Some of this research will be presented at the upcoming Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago in April. Presented below is a quick examination of the impact and importance of independent voters.
In a column for The Hill late last year, prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman repeats an all too common argument in American politics - that independent voters are a myth. According to Mellman "a great many of those who call themselves independents at first blush feel closer to one party or the other (a group we affectionately call “leaners”), leaving a small group of true independents... just 11 percent of the electorate... on average, 77 percent of independents who lean toward the Democrats voted for that party’s presidential candidates, while over 80 percent of Republican leaners did likewise, rivaling the support offered by those who initially claimed to be partisans."
Mellman is not alone, it is in fact quite common in the Political Science literature to read that most independents are closet partisans. Alan Abramowitz recently argued many of the same points as Mellman over at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball.
But much of the research on independent voters considers partisanship in a single election and rarely follows the same voters across multiple elections. When voters are followed across elections, the focus tends to be on presidential elections. With few exception, most elections since 1968 have featured an incumbent president seek re-election or a vice president seeking a promotion. As such candidate preference may be confounding party preference.
Are Independents independent in name only? No, not really. In The Myth of the Independent Voter, Keith et al., (1992) argued there has been little change in partisan attachment since the 1960s. Rather, the authors contend people identifying as Independents often reveal a preference for one of the two major parties when pressed to make a choice. These Leaners behave much the same as their more partisan counterparts with regard to issue positions and vote choice - this is the Mellman and Abramowitz argument. In a 2009 article in Electoral Studies, political scientist John Petrocick argued, “Leaners are partisans. Characterizing them as independents underestimates the partisanship of Americans…” Indeed, Petrocik penned the foundational research on leaners in 1974 and his conclusions that leaners were every bit as partisan as their more partisan counterparts has influenced much scholarship since. But a recent conference paper by Drew Kurlowski identified significan flaws in Petrocik's initial work. Research that I have been conducting suggests independent partisans are far more independent than Abramowitz, Mellman or others realize.
Most studies of partisanship often consider the views of leaners at a given point in time or their votes in a specific election or examine the stability of partisan identification by merging all partisans – Strong, Weak, or Leaning – together and measure macro-level party identification. These measure do not take into consideration the temporal nature of partisan attachment and the propensity to change party affiliation over time. Additionally, in an era of candidate-centered politics it is possible that independents express a preference for the party of the candidate that they have chosen to support. So it would not be surprising that an independent that leans Democratic votes the same as a Strong Partisan Democrat - in a specific election. But the Strong Partisan Democrat voted Democratic because of partisanship, the independent, however, may have voted Democrat and expressed a Democratic preference because of the candidate or even the conditions surrounding a specific election.
But the larger question really pertains to the size and stability of a governing coalition over time. For a President or a political party to succeed they must have a stable electoral coalition. If independent voters are the fastest growing segment of the electorate and if they are truly independent, then Democrats and Republicans need to worry about the rising number of independent partisans. But if folks like Mark Mellman are correct, then the parties can ignore the threat of the independent voter.
A review of ANES data from a panel survey that included 2000, 2002, and 2004, shows that independent Democrats and independent Republicans (roughly a third of each party) are much less attached to their party than either Weak or Strong partisans over time.
Strong as well as Weak partisans left their respective parties at far smaller rates over time. Equally worthy of note, independent Democrats and Republicans who left their 2000 party were just as likely to identify with the opposition party in 2002 and 2004 as they were to simply identify as pure independents.
A review of 2004 partisan identification shows that fully one-third of independent Democrats and Independent Republicans in 2004 identified with another party or no party in 2000. Simply stated, partisan identification is much less stable among independent partisans and Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm (in a 2009 issue of Polity) found that independent partisans are more moderate than Strong partisans - something my research shows as well.
Party switching is only one indication of party loyalty - voting is a far more telling indicator. Using the same panel survey, I explored the voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans across three Congressional elections and found that Democrats, especially independent Democrats, are less loyal to party over time.
As shown in Table 2, weak and independent partisans had roughly the same party loyalty in the 2000 election - but when looking at how those same folks voted in 2002 or 2004 independent partisans were considerably more likely to have defected and voted for the other party - anywhere from 25% to 45% simply switched sides. Party switching like that cannot be dismissed as myth.
Mellman and others are correct - independent Partisans do vote much like their Strong Partisan counterparts in a given election, but the ANES panel data suggests that a significant share of independent Partisans (between a quarter and a third) may well have a different partisan stripe by the next election cycle.
Fully 11% of the electorate are Pure independents, another 30% are independent Partisans (about 18% Democrats and 12% Republicans) and between 25% and 30% of these independent Partisans switch self-reported party affiliation and 25% to 45% change their party vote from election to election. At the very least, this suggests a 25% voting bloc that is quite volatile, quite independent - in a country where our presidential elections have been decided by margins of 7 percentage points or less since 2000 and the difference between the national two party vote share in House elections has averaged about 5 percentage points since 1990.
Independent voters are no myth, they matter, and (when you include among them independent Partisans) they absolutely sway elections. Indeed, the present and highly competitive political era in which we are living is a direct result of a decrease in partisan attachment among a growing number of voters.