Are Independents Really Closet Republicans and Democrats?

With election season nearly upon us, strategists, pollsters, and pundits are already eagerly plumbing the minds and trying to sway the behavior of the nation’s independents, many of whom will be voting in early open primary contests. In New Hampshire, for instance, it is expected that independents will make up 90,000 of the 250,000 voters in the Republican primary.

Yet despite their significant role in affecting the outcome of open primary elections, independents arguably matter most during the general election and may very well decide who becomes president in 2016.

Yet some argue that the influence of independent voters is overrated. While independents may make up a large percentage of the electorate, the argument goes, many of these independents are reliably and predictably partisan.

Those who argue that independents are closet Republicans and Democrats make two interrelated points: (1) most so-called independents actually self-identify as partisan-leaners and (2) these leaners, unlike true independents, tend to vote for candidates from the two major parties.

Yet this evidence ought not be construed to be what statisticians call “valid” – that is, this evidence does not demonstrate what it purports to demonstrate.

These findings reveal only how independents think and behave under coercive political conditions within a narrow two-party system that offers limited choices: they do not show that most independents are secret or coy partisan loyalists who, under different political conditions, would still identify as or vote for Republicans and Democrats.

First, the evidence.

The latest polling data from Gallup shows that 28 percent of the country self-identifies as Republican, 30 percent as Democratic, and 39 percent as independent. Yet when independents are asked about whether they lean toward one of these parties, most of them do: among this 39 percent, 14 break for Republicans and 14 break for Democrats.

Yet can one truly conclude on the basis of this question about their “leaning” that most independents are closet Republicans and Democrats? Even Alan Abramowitz, writing for Politico in defense of the claim that most independents are closet partisans, recognizes that there is a subtle coerciveness to the question, given that independents self-identify in this manner only “when pressed” to do so.

Yet Abramowitz and others nevertheless insist that most independents are truly closet partisans based not only on how they self-identify, but also how they vote.

Philip Bump, for example, writing for the Washington Post, points to a study of independent voters in the 2008 presidential election which found that 90 percent of Democratic-leaning independents voted for Obama and 78 percent of Republican-leaning independents voted for McCain, and Abramowitz points to a similar study of the 2012 election which found that 87 percent of Democratic-leaning independents voted for Obama and 86 percent of Republican-leaning independents voted for Romney.

But there is circular reasoning operating here that few have identified.

“The primary evidence cited to support the claim that leaning independents are closet partisans is that they vote like partisans. But this is a “chicken-and-egg” problem that has never been adequately addressed,” writes Morris Fiorina on the Centrist Project’s blog. “Does a Democratic leaning independent vote Democratic because she is a closet Democrat, or is she an independent who leans Democratic because she has decided to vote Democratic?”

This question reveals that those who argue that independents are closet partisans because of their professed leanings and behavior discount the role (one might say “grip”) that the entrenched two-party system has on the electorate’s thinking and voting.

Put another way, it is faulty to argue that independents “actually aren’t” independents because of how they choose to express their preferences in the context of a bipartisan political environment.

So, one might ask, do the voting patterns cited above really confirm that most independents are partisans-in-disguise, or do they merely show how independents behave in a two-party system where the incentive is to vote for a candidate from one of the two major parties or to “waste one’s vote” by voting for a minor party or independent candidate?

Polling evidence points to the latter. One survey prior to the 2012 presidential election found that 40 percent were dissatisfied with their choices, and another survey by Rasmussen from July 2012 found that 46 percent said they would be voting for “the lesser of two evils” that November.

So while many independents may lean toward or vote for one of the major parties, such a phenomenon only takes place under conditions that they find objectionable: this is the primary reason to reject the claim that independents are really closet partisans.

A Pew survey from 2014 reveals just how much the current political system misrepresents a majority of the public and benefits only a minority of committed partisans. After polling more than 10,000 responds regarding their values and beliefs, Pew sorted the public into eight ideological categories: Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, Solid Liberals, Young Outsiders, Hard-Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, Faith and Family Left, and Bystanders.

Pew found that the first three groups comprise the “partisan anchors”: Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives are reliably Republican, and Solid Liberals are reliably Democratic. The four other politically engaged groups (excluding the 10 percent of apolitical Bystanders), Pew found, “are less uniformly Republican or Democratic.”

Significantly, Pew found that while the partisan anchors comprise only 36 percent of the public, they make up 43 percent of registered voters and 57 percent of those who are “politically engaged.”

In other words, while the current political system and partisan environment accommodates 36 percent of the public that feels largely at home in either the Republican or Democratic Party, a majority of the public’s views do not neatly align with those of the two major parties.

Indeed, this is the primary significance of the consistent finding that 40 percent of the public self-identifies as independent: nearly two in five voters reject the Republican and Democratic Party labels and, by extension, the two-party system itself.

The findings – from the number of dissatisfied voters to those who vote for the “lesser evil” to the lack of identification with a current major party – all undermine the claim that independents are closet Republicans and Democrats: rather, they show that, at most, independents are reluctant partisans who support the major parties for want of better choices.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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