The Growth in Independents…Is Not

As our previous research has indicated, Independents, with leaners included, constitute a growing portion of the electorate.  The real story about the growth of Independents, though, is more nuanced and complex.

First, in our recent look at party identification over time, we made a chart showing the drop in party identification (excluding leaners) over the decades by looking at party identification in January of each year:

chart 1

Of course, it is possible to flip this around and look at it from the reverse – the growth of Independents over the decades (including leaners):

chart 2

Underlying this finding, though, is that “hard Independents” have been stable during this time period.

chart 3

The drop in party identification is simply people moving from strong/not-so-strong partisanship to a so-called Independent, while more than half of these initial Independents are actually partisans in disguise.  (As a point of reference, across Wirthlin tracking in the 1980s, hard Independents ranged typically from 9{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} to 14{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.  The growth of hard Independents was fueled by the economic and political discontent in late 1991/1992 and has generally been stuck in the upper-teens since that time.)

The fact that Independents who say they lean toward either the Republican or Democratic Party are “partisans in disguise” is why in the NBC/WSJ survey we have used “hard Independents” when using the term Independent.

Here is a key table that looks at President Obama’s feeling thermometer and Congressional Preference by party identification among registered voters in 2014.  There is one clear conclusion across the data below: how much Independents who lean Republican or Democrat mirror the attitudinal views of their not-so-strong partisan counterparts.

chart 4

For more comparison data, see the end of the blog post for tables which compare key political attitudes and then key demographic variables on a seven point party identification scale (strong Democrat, not-so-strong Democrat, Independent/lean Democrat, hard Independent, Independent/lean Republican, not-so-strong Republican, and strong Republican).

In fact, on the Republican side, the Independents/lean Republicans are even more likely to say they are Tea Party supporters and have a positive view of the Tea Party.

chart 5

Amidst all this similarity though, there is one difference:  The Independent leaners are less likely to have a positive view of the party to which they lean than the not-so-strong partisans.  In this way, we find one clue at least about what distinguishes a not-so-strong partisan from an Independent who leans toward a party.

chart 6

chart 7

While much has been made of the “growth” of Independents, it is clear when looking at the data the growth is coming from soft partisans saying they are Independents rather than any increase over the past generation in the number of hard Independents.

 chart 8

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