Mellman: Are independents really so independent?

People repeat it regularly. “Partisanship is in decline. Independents are the booming segment.”

Political partisanship entails at least two distinctly different facets, and keeping them separate is important. On the one hand, partisanship is a psychological concept. How do you feel about the parties?

I’ve written before about the fact that most people who respond to poll questions tapping their psychological predispositions by telling us they are independents are, in fact, closet partisans.

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In 31 states (plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands), partisanship is also a legal concept. It’s about which party you checked on the voter registration form.

The always thoughtful and inquisitive founding editor and CEO of the Nevada Independent, Jon Ralston, chronicled the growing number of legal independents in Nevada, a phenomenon evident in other states as well.

Just over a decade ago, when I had the privilege of working with an amazing team to re-elect Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidVoters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Mellman: Are independents really so independent? MORE, one of the very finest people I’ve ever known, just 22 percent of Nevadans were registered as something other than Democrats or Republicans. Much further back, in 1972, it was fewer than 8 percent.

Today, it’s 36 percent.

Ralston asked my firm to examine Nevada’s nonpartisan registrants, though the basic conclusions probably apply elsewhere.

Because our poll used a sample generated from the state’s voter file, we know whether each individual signed up as a Democrat, or as a Republican, or as neither.

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We asked those registered as nonpartisans a question we typically pose about psychological partisanship.

Roughly equal thirds of registered nonpartisans identified with each party grouping. Thirty-five percent identified as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans and 32 percent were, psychologically speaking, true independents.

Of course, they are more independent than the state as a whole, but on first blush, two-thirds of voters who are legally registered as non-partisans turn out to identify themselves psychologically with one major party or the other.

In our hyper-polarized society, most people, and most Nevadans, like their party but disdain the opposition. They don’t just feel positively about their own party, they actively dislike the other one.

Seventy-three percent of Nevada’s partisan registrants fall into that category, while a very similar 68 percent of registered nonpartisans follow suit—harboring a favorable view of one party and an unfavorable view of the other. It’s further evidence most are closet partisans.

Another 14 percent of nonpartisan registrants dislike both parties, while an intrepid 6 percent actually persist in expressing favorable attitudes toward both Democrats and Republicans. 

At the end of the day though, we are ultimately interested less in how voters feel about parties, or how they sign forms, than about how they vote.

We gave Nevadans two ways to tell us.

First, we asked in a generic way how often they voted for Democratic and for Republican candidates.

Over 70 percent of registered nonpartisans “often” or “almost always” vote for one party’s candidates or the other’s, further diminishing the core of the truly independent.

When we gave respondents actual candidate match-ups to vote in — for governor and Senate — the partisanship of declared nonpartisans was similarly conspicuous.

In three match-ups, 85 percent of registered independents never crossed party lines. Over two-thirds (67 percent) voted for either the Democrat or the Republican 3 of 3 times.

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The difference between the 67 percent and the 85 percent were folks who may have voted for Republican or Democratic candidates 2 of 3 times, but professed indecision on a third vote, thus not crossing party lines.

While the ranks of the registered non-partisans have swelled, the number of true independents has not. Indeed, it probably shrank.

Somewhere between 66 and 85 percent of those registered as independents are actually closet partisans — our cluster analysis pegs the figure at 72 percent in Nevada.

No matter how they sign the form, the vast majority of Americans, including those who register as independents, think and vote like partisans. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.