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In the 2004 National Election Study, 39 percent of the sample self-identified as politically Independent. While this survey is generally considered the gold standard on the subject, many challenge it as grossly overstating the actual number of Independents in the electorate. Some thoughts.
Let’s start with the survey questions. The first is: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?” This and a follow up question sort respondents into one of the following categories: Strong Democrat, Weak Democrat, Independent, Weak Republican, Strong Republican.
Independents are further sorted by asking “Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican or the Democratic party?” This results in Independents being classified as Independent Democratic, Independent, and Independent Republican. This brings the number of categories to seven: Strong Republican, Weak Republican, Independent Republican, Independent, Independent Democrat, Weak Democrat, Strong Democrat. The controversy revolves around the “leaners,”. i.e., the Democrat and Republication Independents; i.e., are they Independents or are they disguised partisans?
The issue arises out of further analysis of the data indicating that leaning Independents are more politically active than weak Republicans and Democrats, and may even vote more reliably with the party toward which they lean than “weak” partisans. Removing the leaning Independents from that category would reduce to 10% those classified as Independent, the same percentage as found in the 1960 survey.
But really, now, how likely is it that one quarter of the NES survey from 1960 though 2004, would consistently lie to surveyors year after year, survey after survey? Why would they do that? To what end? Are they delusional?Furthermore, the 2004 data is the latest in a 44 year trend. From 1960 to 2004, there is a steady growth in “leaning” Independents, from 6% Democrat Independents and 7% for Republican Independents to 17% and 12%, respectively. Clearly, something is going on.
One explanation might be the political polarization of recent years. It is certainly plausible that it has so associated Republicans with conservatism and the Democrats with liberalism that when an Independent is asked which party she or he “leans,” the conservatives among them reply Republican and the liberals Democrat. Indeed, a recent survey indicated that roughly two thirds of Independents are conservative or liberal on the political spectrum.
A more substantive challenge to the 39% figure can be inferred from the data of www.ballot-access.org. Tallying 2006 voter registration data for 30 states comprising 57% of the electoral college, 41.6% percent were Democrats, 32.4 % Republicans and 24.2% Independents, this last up from 18.4% in 1992. Interestingly, Independents were the largest category of voters for eight of the 30 states.
Is the 39% too high? Is the 24% too low? Remembering that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, it’s hard to say. What is clear is that a substantial portion of the electorate does not self-identify with either of the major parties. IDn would like to facilitate and strengthen their participation in the political process. We can help. Spread the word.