So Gallup has a new poll that has political media types extolling the power of independents. The poll basically says that party identification in down for both Republican and Democrats at 25% and 31% respectively. However, people identifying as Independents reached its highest total ever at 42%. Scary right? Surely this means that Independents are now THE power in political circles. Why even bother voting if you identify with an actual party that has an animal associated with it right? Not so fast, folks. I would encourage everyone to actually read past the headline of the poll and try going to the actual poll itself. I don’t have a problem with the poll — the methodology seems solid. Although any study that uses self-identification should be taken with a grain of salt. But the conclusions folks are jumping to are problematic.
First of all, party identification doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When one party does well politically, more people are willing to identify with it. Strange, right? We’ll call this the “bandwagon effect.” Similarly, if a party goes off the rails politically, the reverse is also true. For example, let’s say one political party lies us into a war which were are still mired in (Iraq), presides over a horrible response to a natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), and was at the wheel at the beginning of the worst financial calamity since the great Depression. In that case, you’d expect that most people wouldn’t be going out of their way to proclaim their GOP affiliation at dinner parties. But don’t take my word for it. Gallup has actual statistics on this:
Americans’ increasing shift to independent status has come more at the expense of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Republican identification peaked at 34% in 2004, the year George W. Bush won a second term in office. Since then, it has fallen nine percentage points, with most of that decline coming during Bush’s troubled second term. When he left office, Republican identification was down to 28%.
So whether a political party does well or poorly has a direct effect on whether people are willing to identify as such to pollsters. Got it. Now what does this all have to do with voting patterns? Absolutely nothing. Again, anyone could learn these surprising facts by reading slightly past the first paragraph or so. So when is an Independent not an Independent? Probably when partisan leanings are factored into the equation.
Democrats maintain their six-point edge in party identification when independents’ “partisan leanings” are taken into account. In addition to the 31% of Americans who identify as Democrats, another 16% initially say they are independents but when probed say they lean to the Democratic Party. An equivalent percentage, 16%, say they are independent but lean to the Republican Party, on top of the 25% of Americans identifying as Republicans. All told, then, 47% of Americans identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, and 41% identify as Republicans or lean to the Republican Party.
So they aren’t as independent as they’d like us to believe. But I suppose I can’t just lay the blame at the feet of all of the reporters who’ve come to the wrong conclusion. The folks at Gallup mucked it up as well. How people identify is only part of the story. And understanding only part of the story is why conventional political wisdom is so often proven wrong. But I’ll let Jeffrey Jones from Gallup continue:
The increased independence adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections. Because U.S. voters are less anchored to the parties than ever before, it’s not clear what kind of appeals may be most effective to winning votes. But with Americans increasingly eschewing party labels for themselves, candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit.
All due respect to Mr. Jones, but no. The exact same percentage of people who identify as Independents also admit to basically being down with one of the two major political parties. Once you factor in political leanings, Democrats have the exact same six point advantage. “Independent” as a political moniker is mostly just for show. It doesn’t mean anything to the vast majority of people who claim the title. Even in this poll the amount of “actual” independents is a paltry 10%. Does it matter who people choose to identify themselves politically? Of course. But here’s what matters more, whether they vote or not and how they actually vote.
John Slides, Associate Professor of Political Science from George Washington University wrote a great article for the Washington Post about it:
Why is it more important? Because independents who lean toward a party — or “independent leaners” — behave like partisans, on average. They tend to be loyal to their party’s candidate in elections. They tend to have favorable views of many political figures in their party.
Others interesting tidbits from article include stats on the split ticket voting being on the decline and the fact that the number of “pure” independents is declining. So the 2014 midterm elections are going to be fairly predictable. Although Democrats have a six point edge in party identification, they tend to vote less in non-Presidential elections. Unless something dramatic happens between now and Election Day, both the House will be controlled by Republicans and the Senate will be controlled by the Democrats. The same way they are today. Their leads in both chambers will be shaved down, but it will be business as usual. But that has nothing to do with party identification or lack thereof. So enough with the Rise of Independents already.