Independents span the political spectrum. They can be found among conservatives, moderates and progressives. What they all share in common, however, is an unwillingness to identify themselves with either of the major parties, and, indeed, with any political party whatsoever. This fact, of itself, reveals a number of paradoxes inherent in the duopoly system of political representation. The conservative independent might argue that the major parties offer a choice between a liberal party and a not-as-liberal party; the independent progressive may very well assert that the major parties represent a choice between a conservative and a not-as-conservative party; and the moderate independent might decry ideological extremism on both sides of the duopoly divide.
The Hankster links to a reminder that "most 'independent' voters aren't," from Mark Millan at the LA Times Top of the Ticket blog, whose post was occasioned by a piece at Miller-McCune aimed at debunking media myths surrounding the independent voter on the basis of a recent study by John Petrocik in the journal Electoral Studies entitled: "Measuring Party Support: Leaners are not Independents."
'Leaners' are, of course, people who describe themselves as independents to pollsters, but when asked whether they lean toward either of the duopoly parties over the other, they choose one over the other. (I have discussed the phenomenon of leaners before, see Independent Independents and the Duopoly Prod.) Needless to say, when respondents to polls state that they affiliate with either of the duopoly parties, they are not then asked whether they lean independent or toward a third party. In his article, Petrocik argues that leaners:
are virtually identical to those who are classified as “weak” partisans (who are almost universally viewed as party identifiers) across a wide variety of perceptions, preferences, and behaviors.Such findings justify the inclusion of independent leaners in measurements of support for the major parties. As the Miller-McClune article puts it:
In the public imagination, independents are a relatively stable demographic made up of engaged but unaffiliated people who can be persuaded one way or another. They are thought of, essentially, as swing voters. No doubt much of the fascination with how independents are thinking is based on that premise. Which, it turns out, is false.Gallup undoubtedly agrees with this line of reasoning. In their State of the States report on political party affiliation, the polling organization notes:
Because the proportion of independents in each state varies considerably (from a low of 25% in Pennsylvania to a high of 50% in Rhode Island and New Hampshire), it is easiest to compare relative party strength using "leaned" party identification. Thus, the Democratic total represents the percentage of state residents who identify as Democratic, or who identify as independent but when asked a follow-up question say they lean to the Democratic Party. Likewise, the Republican total is the percentage of Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning independents in a state.However, while Petrocik argues that the number of independents appears inflated because "of the inclination of Americans to prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and inclined to judge candidates on their individual merit," the identification of leaners as weak partisans equally inflates the level of support for the duopoly parties. Petrocik's own data show that overall:
Only 38% express a preference for continuing the current Democratic and Republican party domination; almost as many (34%) prefer to see new parties challenge the Democrats and Republicans.It is indeed highly unlikely that very many independently minded voters conform to the mass media's preconceived notions of the independent voter as swing voter. But does this mean that they are not 'really' independent? If an independently-minded voter is confronted with a choice between a Republican and a Democrat, and they consistently vote for one side over the other, this does not imply that they are not independent, but it would seem to imply that they lean conservative or liberal, and points toward the pernicious prevalence of lesser-evilism. They could be voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or against the greater of two evils, and they may well do so against their inclination or their better judgment, simply because they would rather vote Republican or Democrat than not vote.