Mark Mellman: Independent in name only

My friends at Third Way were kind enough to cite this column in attacking my oft-stated warning that most independents are not as independent as they claim, a fact that becomes relevant in examining Pew’s majestic report on millennials. 

Hidden among those who profess to be independent are a great many closet partisans. Party identification — something quite different from registration, as I have also discussed here — is usually derived from a poll question asking whether respondents consider themselves a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. Some surveys, like exit polls, stop there, but many other surveys go a step further, asking independents which party they lean toward. 


It turns out that a great many of those who call themselves independents at first blush nonetheless feel closer to one party or the other (a group we affectionately call “leaners”), leaving a small group of true independents. 

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

Despite their 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 2012, 88 percent of Democratic leaners voted for President Obama, while 86 percent of Republican leaners cast their ballots for Mitt Romney. Similarly, in 2008, 90 percent of Democratic leaners supported Obama and 82 percent of GOP leaners were voters for John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE

Between 1992 and 2008, on average, 79 percent of independents who leaned toward Democrats voted for that party’s presidential candidates, while more than 80 percent of Republican leaners did likewise, rivaling the support offered by those who initially claimed to be partisans. 

Now, the folks at Third Way counter this by showing that in a panel study from 2000-2004, independent leaners were much more likely than strong and even weak partisans to change their party identification. 

Professor Alan Abramowitz counters by saying that the 2000-2004 study had problems of various sorts, while a more recent panel found “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.” In short, the more recent study, with the larger sample, found leaners consistent in their partisanship. 

Clearly, though, whatever changes may sometimes occur, independent leaners vote like partisans. 

This seemingly arcane debate has implications for Pew’s recent study of political generations, particularly millennials. 

Analyzing independent leaners as if they were true independents, Pew’s report concludes, “In the past decade, the share of self-described independents with no firm ties to either party has grown in every generation, but it has increased the most among Millennials.” (Having “no firm ties to either party” is not quite an accurate description, of course, but hold that to the side.) Indeed, under this definition, the percentage of millennials who are independents rose from 38 percent in 2004 to 50 percent today. 

Again counting leaners as true independents, both parties lost support with the millennial generation: Democrats were down 3 points, while Republicans lost 7 points. 

Counting leaners as partisans, the way I would, presents a very different picture — one which Pew, to it its credit, clearly draws. Defined this way, in 2004 half of millennials were Democrats and half are today — no change. Republican identification among millennials dropped a mere 3 points, while the number of independents grew from 13 percent to 16 percent.

If leaners are really independents, we have witnessed a revolution. If they are really partisans, not much has changed. And the truth is that things haven’t changed very much. 

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.