BDN’s “The Point” is wrong about independents

Vic Berardelli’s piece in “The Point” about primaries is right to point out that primary polls and votes could change.

However, he’s dead wrong in what he says about independents.

Berardelli writes:

[Independents] are mostly free thinkers who go back and forth between parties, and they dislike both parties as organizations. So they’re watching all of the pre-primary polling with an “is that the best you got?” cynicism.

Wrong. People who are unenrolled may think of themselves as “free thinkers” but decades of political science research has found that, in many case, that’s not supported by the data.

This contention is sometimes called “The myth of the independent voter,” which is also the name of the 1992 book.

In reality:

  • Very high percentages of people who don’t identify with a party vote lean toward one.
  • Those “leaners” vote with a political party as much as people who identify with a political party.
  • Around 10% of voters go between parties.
  • Those “pure independents” tend not to follow politics much and are low-informed compared to partisans.

Berardelli is not at all unusual in getting this wrong. Eliot Cutler’s campaign used to point to data showing an increase in independents all the time, as if that meant there was some big pool of voters out there that was free-floating.

This sort of graph, from the Pew Research Center shows the increase in independents. One might look at it and think — wow! — 39% are independent now.

Source: Pew Research Center, "A Deep Dive into Party Affiliation" April 2015

Source: Pew Research Center, “A Deep Dive into Party Affiliation” April 2015

However, people who promote the myth of the independent voter never grapple with what other data — including the below graph — show.

Pew Research Center, "A Deep Dive into Party Affiliation" April 2015

Pew Research Center, “A Deep Dive into Party Affiliation” April 2015

Here you see that 87% (48% + 39%) of Americans either identify with a political party or lean toward one, down a little from the 91% (49% + 42%) in 1992. That means that 9% didn’t identify with a party or lean toward one in 1992, and 13% fell in that category in 2014.

That is rather far from the 39% figure in the top graph. Ideologies of leaners are very much like partisans. They’re not terribly independent at all.

It’s hard to kill this notion of independents as somehow above partisanship, but it’s just not true.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.