Independent voters are not rising

Chris Kirk

Election season is over. Now we’re well into the season of looking at election results and making wild, sweeping, baseless claims about how the electorate is changing.

A popular one is that American voters are becoming more independent. It’s fun to believe in, and it’s fun to write news articles, such as this recent The New York Times article, about it.

After all, partisanship is a divisive, European thing. America is all about independence – independent thought, independent speech, independent voting. Right?


Polls may show more Americans identifying themselves as independents. The Pew Research Center, for example, shows that 37 percent of registered voters identified themselves as independents this year, “one of the highest levels in the past 20 years” and more than the 34 percent who identified themselves as independents in 2008.

However, this “trend” is misleading. Instead of a trend of increased voter independence, it is merely a trend of increased independent identification.

That’s because voters don’t vote how they say they vote.

Voters like to think that they are politically savvy Americans who transcend petty partisan politics and carefully consider the individual candidates for who they are and what they stand for instead of the letters next to their name.

But when they get to the ballot booth, most so-called “independents” are not independent at all. They often vote along party lines, just like Democratic and Republican voters.

Such voters are a brand of independents known as “independent leaners,” voters who identify themselves as independents but admit to leaning toward one party or the other.

They behave a lot like people who identify themselves as weakly Democratic or Republican. In some elections, independent leaners have sometimes even been more partisan in voting.

In other words, they aren’t very independent; they just say they are.

So a graph that shows an increase in independent identification and a decrease in Democratic and Republican identification is a little more complicated than it looks.

The increase in independents is not a trend toward non-partisan voting. Instead, it is a trend toward more independent leaners. In other words, the trend is about how people identify themselves in surveys, not how they vote.

It’s too early to tell which independents in this election were “leaners” and which were “pure.” But if trends over the last 50 years have continued, the apparently greater percentage of “independents” is due to a greater percentage of independent leaners, not pure independents.

Since the 1950s, more Americans have become independent leaners while the percentage of “pure” independents has remained roughly the same.

Bottom-line: the only thing that we can discern from this election is this: vote how you wish, but it’s increasingly uncool to say you vote Democrat or Republican.

So, the next time you read a news article about the surge of independent voting that is sweeping America – especially one that absurdly suggests that Lisa Murkowski’s apparent win in Alaska illustrates that people are voting more independently – be skeptical.

Be an independent reader, even if you’re reading The New York Times.