In the United States today, independent voters are often presented as the electoral kingmakers. Not surprisingly then, nearly every political poll takes their views into account. And given that independents have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans in multiple surveys since the late 1970s, that seems to make sense. In 2016, for example, according to the American National Election Studies (ANES), 38% of Americans were independent, while only 33% identified as Democrats and 29% as Republican. Moreover, they are often presumed to be less partisan and less ideological — thus more open to persuasion than party members.
But the truth is independents are not nearly as “neutral” as we think. In our research, we found that roughly two-thirds of self-declared independents are partisan. To put it simply, they have strong political leanings that they don’t immediately reveal to pollsters. And they are therefore less likely to close political divides than we might otherwise assume.
Once this reality is factored into the analysis of the electorate, the picture changes dramatically. According to the ANES, of the 38% of voters who initially said they were independent in 2016, just over one-third (34%) leaned Democratic and 38% leaned Republican. Democratic-leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton (92%), while Republican-leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump (91%). As is often the case in voting, only about a third of independents are truly independent.
It is just as important to distinguish independent “leaners” from actual independents when looking at specific issues. Take, for example, a recent Quinnipiac University poll on impeachment. If looked at as a group, independents appeared about evenly divided, with 50% believing Congress should impeach President Donald Trump and remove him from office, and 45% thinking they should not. But of independents who lean Democratic, 90% said Congress should try to impeach Trump, while 74% of independents who lean Republican said Congress should not pursue impeachment proceedings.
True independents were the only ones more evenly divided, with 52% favoring impeachment and 44% against. This highlights a persistent trend: Most independents lean toward a party — and those that lean are not really independent.
Our research has found that independent leaners are partisans in how they vote as well, consistently voting for the party to which they were already inclined. This has been the case for decades and remained the case in the 2018 midterm elections. Democratic-leaning independents voted 94% for Democratic House candidates, and Republican-leaning independents voted 88% for Republican House candidates.
Political scientists once thought independents were less inclined to vote or otherwise participate in politics. But in research we did in the 1970s, we demonstrated that independents who lean one way or the other in fact vote at higher rates than weak partisans, or respondents who initially claim to be Democrats or Republicans but indicate they are not very strongly attached to a party. And this remains true today.
They also exceed weak partisans in their rates of attempting to persuade others about how to vote, wearing campaign buttons and giving money to parties or candidates. As with partisans from their preferred party, they have highly negative views of the other party.
But what about the remaining one-third of independents, those who don’t show any partisan leanings or preferences? In stark contrast to political leaners, they are far less politically engaged or informed. Because true independents are generally less likely to have opinions on political candidates and policy issues, they play often play an insignificant role in influencing the outcome of elections. So, to talk about independents as a group of voters who could determine who might win an election is a mistake.
As election polls are released this coming year, pundits will harp on the role of independents, often with the implication that their large numbers make the outcome of elections hard to predict. This is exaggerated in most cases: While our nation is roughly equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, approximately one-in-10 Americans are truly independent, and only about half of this group is likely to vote in the 2020 general election. And that’s a reality we cannot ignore.