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Friday, January 10, 2014

Implications of the Rise in Independents

Asked to identify with one of a tripartite list of labels -- “Democrat, Republican, or independent” --more Americans than ever before are choosing the label “independent.” Fewer are choosing Republican, while the amount identifying as Democrat is staying fairly stable.

My colleague Jeff Jones has delved into some detail on these trends in his recent review. Overall, 42% of Americans now say they are independents, the highest in Gallup’s history of measuring partisanship in this way. 

This, to me, appears to be another indicator of Americans’ growing disenfranchisement from their government and from the formal apparatus that supports that system -- namely the two parties.  

In other words, if Americans are down on Congress and down on the government in general, which they are, then they are apparently also less likely to want to identify with one of the two major parties that control Congress and, by extension, the government. It’s a “pox on all your houses.”

The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan reviewed these Gallup data and concluded that this increase in the percentage identifying as independents may be less important than one would think. Why? Because Americans still lean toward one or the other party, even if initially identifying as independents. 

That’s true, as Jeff points out in some detail in his analysis. We ask partisan identification as a two-phase question. First, the choice among the three parties. Second, a follow-up asked of independents if they lean toward one party or the other. In fact, across 2013 data, 32% of Americans (that’s about three-quarters of the original 42%) who are initially independent lean toward one or the other major party (to be specific, 16% of Americans are initially independent but lean toward the Republican Party, and 16% of Americans are initially independent but lean toward the Democratic Party). 

Still, the fact that there has been an increasing probability that Americans will choose the label "independent" rather than one of the two major party labels when first asked about their party identification cannot be ignored. It certainly suggests that the strength of attachment to the major parties is less than it used to be -- even if, when push comes to shove, Americans still tilt in one direction or the other. A weakened sense of loyalty to a party means that there is a higher chance of change in the status quo in terms of voting behavior in elections, and that could be very interesting to watch this year.

In general, we have a public that: 1) is fed up with Congress, 2) is fed up with government, 3) views fixing government as one of the top problems facing the nation, and 4) is increasingly less likely to identify with one of the two national parties. Plus, we also have images of the government as inept (healthcare exchanges) or corrupt (George Washington Bridge lane closures) at the top of our news queues in recent months. New data that we will report next week also show that the American public is not only down on Congress in general, but is less inclined to want to re-elect either most members of Congress or their own representative than at most any other time in recent history. 

Of course, in reference to this latter point, if Americans don’t re-elect their incumbent, in most situations they are forced to vote for someone from the other major party. And, as we have seen, Americans apparently have less faith in either of the major parties than at any other time in history.  

All of this would seem to favor a candidate who, if not a classic independent, does not have a strong history of association with the major parties. In other words, someone who has a more anti-establishment background, who is more likely to focus on getting problems solved than on partisanship and ideology, and who is decidedly practical and efficient. The data suggest that being a died-in-the-wool party loyalist, seemingly being interested in partisanship more than in getting things done, and being a long-time politician or incumbent may not be the best position to be in this fall. Most incumbents will be re-elected regardless (based on history), but the potential for more turmoil at the polls than is traditional this year appears to be something that can't be ignored.  

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