Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Everybody Likes to Say They're an Independent--But Are They?

Back in grad school when I was taking a seminar on electoral behavior, one of the major concepts we discussed and read about at length was the notion of whether or not "independents" are actually as prevalent as the conventional wisdom suggests. Among mainstream media reporters, a common assertion is that America is increasingly becoming disconnected from the two major parties. They are dissatisfied with their choices, are less ideological, and will gravitate toward candidates who offer "real solutions" and are pragmatic. The success of candidates like Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain, and other self styled "mavericks" feeds the media obsession with this meme.

But is this really true? Are Americans really becoming more independent??? While voters might certainly identify themselves as independent, it is their behavior that really matters. In response to the latest talk about Barack Obama and his declining support, John Sides over at the Monkey Cage throws water (convincingly I believe) on the rise of the independent.

As a slew of political science research has demonstrated over the past decade or so, self identified independents actually behave quite similar to highly partisan voters. Although they claim no partisan allegiance, they tend to vote consistently with one party. In the research's parlance, they are "leaners." The number of pure independents, those whose votes are truly up for grabs, especially over time, is only in the neighborhood of about 10% of the electorate. Furthermore, their numbers seem to actually be decreasing.

So as you continue to hear more and more discussion about the vaunted "independent voter," dig a little bit deeper and ask whether appearance and reality match up.

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