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Myth of the Independent Voter

Though I am not expecting a cable TV show of my own, I am continuing to mine the “myth buster” vein I opened last week. This time, however, I’ll tackle an even bigger myth — The Myth of the Independent Voter, to borrow the title of a nearly 20-year-old book.

Stated with varying degrees of adamance, the mythical tale tells of a growing force in American politics — independents — who now constitute the largest segment of the electorate, outnumbering both Democrats and Republicans.

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Like many potent myths, this one contains a kernel of reality. Two data sources identify independents as the nation’s largest “party.” According to the American National Election Studies (ANES), the number of independents grew from 26 to 40 percent between 1952 and 2008, dwarfing the percentage of the electorate identifying themselves as either Democrats or Republicans. Gallup found fewer independents than either Democrats or Republicans in 1988 (33 percent), but by 2010 they became the most numerous segment (38 percent). 

Pew paints a slightly different picture, with the percentage of independents rising and falling, but growing from 28 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2011. However, in the 2011 Pew data, Democrats are as numerous as independents. In the exit polls, too, the number jumps around, but in 1972, 19 percent of voters called themselves independents, whereas in 2010 they constituted 29 percent, though despite the hype, independents have never been the largest “party” in an exit poll.

However, the most important challenge to the myth arises from the fact that these data obscure more than they reveal (proving that occasionally it is helpful to actually know something before offering grand pronouncements). Hidden among the independents we have examined so far are a great many closet partisans. Understanding this phenomenon requires a closer look at the wording of the poll question from which party identification is derived. In the first instance, it asks whether respondents consider themselves a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. The exit polls stop there, but most other surveys go a step further, asking independents toward which party they lean. 

Lo and behold, 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. So the ANES, which found the largest group of independents when leaners were ignored, reveals just 11 percent of the electorate are true independents. That’s more than in 1952 (5 percent), but fewer than in the mid- to late ’70s, when it was 16-18 percent. Gallup first started taking leaners into account in 1991 and found just 8 percent were true independents then, compared to an only marginally larger 11 percent today, while Pew also pegs today’s number at 11 percent. 

Now, instead of diverging, our four sets of data all indicate the number of real independents is 10 percent to 11 percent, rendering them far smaller than either party.

Of course, the critical question about leaners is not their self-description, but their behavior.

Despite their initial attempt to adopt the independent label, leaners vote very much like partisans, giving the vast majority of their support to the party to which they feel closer. In 2008, 90 percent of Democratic leaners voted for Barack Obama and 82 percent of GOP leaners supported John McCain. Between 1992 and 2008, 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. 

This is hardly esoteric knowledge. Political scientists have been aware of these facts since the mid-’80s, and most basic college texts on voting behavior highlight such findings. Yet the myth lives on, propagated by the unaware and those more interested in shocking than in truth telling. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.