Several recent polls confirm an apparent long-term trend within the American electorate of increasing number of voters identifying as Independents and not as Democrats or Republicans.
According to the Gallup organization, 43 percent of Americans identify as politically independent, the highest number recorded since Gallup began asking the question in 1988. Thirty percent of respondents identify as Democrats and 26 percent as Republicans. The numbers for both parties are near their historic low points. The numbers, Gallup says, are an aggregate of 15 separate telephone polls conducted throughout 2014.
The Pew Research Center reached similar conclusions. Based on more than 25,000 interviews performed last year, Pew found that 39 percent of voters identify as Independents, 32 percent as Democrats, and 23 percent as Republicans. Pew says the percentage of Independents is the highest in its more than 75 years of public opinion polling.
The apparent independence of the American voter seems to be confirmed by what is occurring on the campaign trail, where seemingly independent challengers are confounding expectations. On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is not even a Democrat and identifies as an Independent in the Senate, is attracting huge crowds — 10,000 people in liberal Madison, Wisconsin, recently — and gaining in the polls on odds-on favorite Hillary Clinton. Among the plethora of Republican candidates, Donald Trump is now second to Jeb Bush in the early caucus state of Iowa and in early primary state of New Hampshire, as well as second in some national polls. Trump’s recent surge probably reflects name recognition and the appeal of his racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant tirades to a segment of the electorate. But Trump also represents an independent challenge to the Republican establishment, and his candidacy, like Sanders’, is an indication of many voters’ discontent with both parties.
It is, of course, not surprising that Independent eclipses Democrat and Republican in recent polls. Voters are becoming younger as the so-called Millennial generation enters the electorate, and one of the chief characteristic of Millennials is a distrust of existing institutions, including political parties. More importantly, new voters, and many older ones as well, are turned off by the political gridlock in Washington brought on by the seemingly inane squabbling of both parties and want to distance themselves ideologically from the creators of the gridlock.
But just how independent is the self-identifying Independent voter?
The Pew poll cited above, in which 39 percent of respondents identified as Independent, got much different numbers when it took into account the partisan leanings of Independents. When voters were asked which way they lean, Pew found that 48 percent either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; 39 percent identify as Republicans or lean Republican.
Similarly, when Gallup asks voters, “Do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” it finds the partisan divide a narrow 45-43 percent in favor of Democrats. Apparently, most of the Independent vote, consistently over 40 percent in Gallup polls, melts away when voters are asked the followup question about partisan leanings.
When partisan leanings are taken into account, the 40 percent or more of voters who identify as Independent shrinks to around 15 percent. Nor is it clear that most of that 15 percent is politically moderate, that is, in the ideological middle between the liberal Democratic Party and the conservative Republican. Other polls show that many voters who call themselves Independents are not moderates, but rather liberals who refuse to identify with the Democratic Party, but usually vote Democratic, or conservatives who decline to call themselves Republicans, but usually vote Republican. These polls suggest that the two parties are contesting for perhaps five percent of the electorate which is truly independent.
Recent presidential elections confirm this. Forty or so of the fifty states are either reliably red or blue in which the opposition party has little or no chance of upsetting its opponent. Only about ten states are truly up for grabs, battleground states in which the two parties contest for a small percentage of the voters who are independent and determine the outcomes in those states.
Yes, the number of Americans who are not registering as a member of a party or who decline to identify with a party is increasing. But that does not mean they are truly independent voters who decide for whom to vote based on the appeal of the candidates and not the pull of a political party. American elections will continue to be decided by a small slice of the electorate, who are truly independent, in a relatively few battleground states.