Independents are hot. If you’ve been reading the opinion columns in the newspaper or watching the talking heads on television, you probably know that political independents are the largest and fastest growing segment of the American electorate. You also know that independents don’t care about party labels, vote for the person instead of the party, and hew toward the center rather than the poles of the ideological spectrum. And you know that appealing to this growing bloc of independent voters is the major goal of modern political campaigns.
Unfortunately, almost everything that you’ve read or heard about independent voters recently is wrong. True independents actually make up a small segment of the American public and an even smaller segment of the electorate; the large majority of those who call themselves independents actually have a party preference and these independent partisans think and act almost exactly like regular partisans. And the major goal of modern political campaigns is not appealing to a mythical bloc of independent voters, but unifying and mobilizing partisans.
The myth of the independent voter was exploded in a book by the same name that was published back in 1992. In The Myth of the Independent Voter, a team of six political scientists based on the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated that the large majority of Americans continued to identify with one of the two major parties and that party identification remained by far the strongest predictor of candidate choice in elections.
What was true then is even truer today. Partisanship is not only alive and well in American elections, it is thriving. Table 1 presents evidence on the party loyalties of Americans from the 2008 American National Election Study–the latest in a series of surveys that have been probing the political attitudes and behavior of Americans since 1952.
At first glance, the evidence from the 2008 NES appears to show that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. About 40 percent of the respondents identified themselves as independents, which was considerably more than the 34 percent who identified with the Democratic Party or the 26 percent who identified with the Republican Party. However, when these independent identifiers were asked a follow-up question, nearly three-fourths of them indicated that they usually felt closer to one of the two major parties. Only 11 percent of the respondents were “pure independents” with no party preference. And because these pure independents turned out at a much lower rate than either regular or independent partisans, that number shrank down to 7 percent among those who actually voted.
Not only did the large majority of independent identifiers readily acknowledge having a party preference, but the evidence displayed in Table 2 from the 2008 NES shows that independent partisans behaved almost identically to regular partisans when it came to choosing candidates for President, House of Representatives, and Senate: independent Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates and independent Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.
It is not surprising that independent partisans voted very similarly to regular partisans because their views on most major issues were also very similar to those of regular partisans. Independent Democrats were generally quite liberal while independent Republicans were generally quite conservative. For example, 76 percent of independent Democrats supported a government-sponsored universal health insurance plan as did 74 percent of regular Democrats. On the other hand, 60 percent of independent Republicans opposed such a plan as did 70 percent of regular Republicans.
On social issues, independent Democrats were sometimes even more liberal than regular Democrat. For example, 59 percent of independent Democrats supported same-sex marriage compared with 48 percent of regular Democrats, and 63 percent of independent Democrats took the most pro-choice position on the issue of abortion compared with 53 percent of regular Democrats.
Partisanship continues to exert a powerful influence on public opinion in the post-election period. A CNN poll in late April found that 90 percent of independent Democrats and 92 percent of regular Democrats approved of President Obama’s performance while 71 percent of independent Republicans and 70 percent of regular Republicans disapproved.
The large majority of independent identifiers lean toward one of the two major parties and these independent partisans are virtually indistinguishable from regular partisans in political outlook or behavior. It therefore makes no sense to view independents as a homogenous bloc of floating voters. Independents are sharply divided along party lines just like the rest of the American electorate.