Skip links

Are Independent Leaners Closet Partisans or True Independents?

A recent report from Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, criticized my research and that of other political scientists who have concluded that independent leaners — voters who identify themselves as independents but indicate that they usually feel closer to one political party or the other — are really closet partisans. The Third Way report, which relies almost entirely on data from a single three-wave panel survey conducted by the American National Election Study between 2000 and 2004, finds that these independent leaners have rather unstable party preferences and that independent Democrats in particular are not reliably Democratic voters.  The implication of the report is that Democratic Party leaders and candidates need to adopt more centrist policies to appeal to this large group of swing voters.

This is an important issue because according to almost all recent surveys, the large majority of independent voters lean toward one of the two major parties. In the 2008 American National Election Study, for example, about three-fourths of independent voters leaned toward a party, and the vast majority of those leaning independents voted for the candidate of the party they leaned toward.

It is this sort of finding, repeated in many surveys of voters in many different elections, that has led political scientists, including myself, to conclude that most independent leaners are closet partisans rather than true independents. And, indeed, there are good reasons to be skeptical about the conclusions of the Third Way study.

First, the 2000-2002-2004 panel survey was based on a rather small sample of voters. Moreover, it was a sample that was skewed in a Republican direction. For example, in the 2004 wave of the survey, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by a margin of 12 percentage points, far larger than Bush’s actual margin of less than three percentage points. And the 2000-2002-2004 era was marked by an overall shift in American public opinion toward the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Even so, 71% of those who identified themselves as independent Democrats in 2000 continued to identify with the Democratic Party four years later, not very different from the 73% of independent Republicans who continued to identify with the Republican Party.

Fortunately, though, we do not have to rely on one panel survey done at one particular moment in American political history to examine the stability of party identification in the electorate. In 2008-2009 the ANES conducted another panel survey, this one encompassing multiple waves during the course of the 2008 campaign and afterwards. This panel survey also included about twice as many respondents as the 2000-2002-2004 survey. And the results of the 2008-2009 survey provide strong support for the conclusion that leaning independents are indeed more like closet partisans than like true independents.

An examination of the results of the ANES 2008-2009 panel surveys shows that first, the vast majority of independent leaners, and especially of independent Democrats, continued to identify with the party they originally leaned toward more than a year and a half after the initial interview in January 2008. In August 2009, 82% of respondents who were independent Democrats in January 2008 continued to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 73% of independent Republicans continued to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. Only 5% of both groups of leaners had switched to the opposing party.

Moreover, the vast majority of respondents who leaned toward a party in January 2008 ended up voting for that party’s presidential candidate in November 2008, even though the identities of the presidential candidates were far from certain in January. Nevertheless, 87% of independent Democrats ultimately voted for Barack Obama while 82% of independent Republicans ultimately voted for John McCain. Independent Democrats and Republicans were actually more loyal to their party’s presidential candidates than weak Democrats and Republicans in 2008 –only 80% of weak Democrats and only 78% of weak Republicans ultimately voted for their party’s presidential candidates.

The reason for the high rate of loyalty of those independent leaners is not hard to find: Both groups of independent leaners generally shared the dominant ideological orientation of the party they leaned toward. Independent Democrats were quite liberal and independent Republicans were quite conservative. In fact, independent Democrats were more liberal than weak Democrats while independent Republicans were more conservative than weak Republicans. About three of five (59%) of independent Democrats placed themselves on the liberal side of the ideology scale compared with 50% of weak Democrats, while 74% of independent Republicans placed themselves on the conservative side of the scale compared with 72% of weak Republicans.

These results from the ANES 2008-2009 panel survey reinforce the findings of many other surveys of American voters — Americans who identify themselves as independents but who indicate that they lean toward one of the two major parties generally think and behave more like partisans than like true independents. They tend to maintain their party preference over a long period of time, they tend to vote overwhelmingly for the party that they lean toward, and they tend to hold ideological orientations consistent with their party preference. Independent Democrats, in particular, lean toward the liberal side of the ideological spectrum and would not be likely to defect from Democratic candidates who take progressive positions. That is why they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and are very likely to do so again in 2012.

Emory University professor and Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz takes an in-depth look at the seemingly irreconcilable divide between Republicans and Democrats in his new book, The Polarized Public? Abramowitz argues that bipartisanship remains elusive, not because of politicians in Washington, but because of the American public and their fixation on party membership and loyalty. Now available on Amazon, click here to get your copy today.