Pew has a new report out looking at self-identified political independents. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it should be waved in the face of Howard Schultz and others who look at the high percentage of Americans who prefer to call themselves independents and see a huge constituency for some centrist “third force.” It’s largely a mirage.
According to Pew’s numbers, while 38 percent of Americans identify as indies, only 7 percent “decline to lean towards a party.” Party “leaners” are a lot like self-identified partisans. For example, 70 percent of GOP-leaning indies give Donald Trump a positive job rating; 75 percent of them favor an expanded border wall; and 78 percent would prefer a smaller government providing fewer services. And far from being “plague on both your houses” nonpartisans with disdain for elephants and donkeys, independent leaners like one party and really dislike the other:
Currently, 87% of those who identify with the Republican Party view the Democratic Party unfavorably. Republican-leaning independents are almost as likely to view the Democratic Party negatively (81% unfavorable). Opinions among Democrats and Democratic leaners are nearly the mirror image: 88% of Democrats and 84% of Democratic leaners view the GOP unfavorably. In both parties, the shares of partisan identifiers and leaners with unfavorable impressions of the opposition party are at or near all-time highs.
The idea that independents are mostly “moderates” is increasingly out of whack with reality, too. A majority of GOP-leaning indies self-identify as conservative now, and while “moderates” still outnumber “liberals” among Democratic leaners (by a 45-39 margin), the latter category is steadily growing, as is the case with self-identified Democrats.
The most interesting thing about the small tribe of true indies is that they are significantly less politically engaged that independent leaners, who are in turn less engaged than out-and-out partisans. Only about a third of true indies report having voted in the 2018 midterms. It’s likely many of them aren’t turned off by partisan extremism and longing for centrist savior, but rather turned off by politics generally. This means they are difficult to persuade and even harder to mobilize.
One implication of the report that’s worth internalizing is that polls and other opinion indicators that don’t break out leaners from true indies create an impression of the whole category as being in the middle on issues and candidates alike. In truth, much of what you read about independents reflects the dynamics of partisan leaners canceling each other out. So that big, potentially irresistible force poised between the two parties is mostly a figment of the imagination. And the partisan polarization so many self-identified pundits love to deplore extends well into the ranks of the technically unaffiliated. Get used to it, Mr. Schultz.