Study: Independents Aren’t All That Independent Anymore

(CN) – In an era of hyper-partisanship, Independents have been a key demographic in polling and electoral politics. But according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center, most Americans who view themselves as Independent still typically align with one of the two major parties and true Independents tend to stay away from politics altogether.

Pew’s analysis, based on several surveys conducted last year, revealed that a 38-percent plurality described themselves as Independents, rather than Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (26 percent).

But of that 38 percent, 17 percent identified as leaning Democrat and

13 percent identified as leaning Republican. Only 7 percent of respondents said they had no partisan leanings, which has shrunk from 9 percent in the last eight years.

The data revealed that generally speaking, leaners agreed with their partisan counterparts. For example, 87 percent of Republicans supported expanding the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and 75 percent of Independents who lean Republican also favored the wall. Reciprocally, 92 percent of Democrats oppose the wall, and 95 percent of Democratic leaners opposed the wall as well.

This trend tracked across multiple policy areas, including issues such as tariffs, the 2017 tax bill, big-versus-small government, the function of regulations and economic fairness. Nonpartisan Independents were the only demographic to have no opinion on certain questions, including tariffs and the tax bill.

In fact, the clearest trends in the surveys indicated that Independents with partisan leanings have been leaning harder toward their respective parties for the last 18 years. Fifty-one percent of Republican leaners identify as conservative, which has increased from 42 percent in 2000. The number of Democratic leaners who identify as liberal has climbed 11 points to 39 percent over the same time period.

Moderates, on the other hand, have decreased in every partisan demographic, including nonpartisan Independents.

Ironically, the data suggests that unfavorability ratings for both parties have climbed since 1994 – 17 percent of respondents in 2018 said they did not favor either party, whereas only 6 percent of respondents said the same nearly 25 years ago. Nonetheless, 66 percent of overall respondents favored one party over the other.

Broken down by affiliation, 55 percent of Republican leaners were favorable to the Republican Party and 56 percent of Democratic leaners were favorable to the Democratic Party.

Independents, especially nonpartisan Independents, were the most likely to oppose both parties. Twenty-eight percent of Independents overall opposed both parties, and 37 percent of nonpartisan Independents said the same.

However, data also revealed that nonpartisan Independents were more likely to favor both parties (22 percent) than Independents overall (15 percent).

A long-standing assumption among political analysts and pundits has been that Independents are true swing voters who have a good chance of tipping the scales in either direction.

However, the Pew data supports the sustained notion that partisanship is increasing among Americans. Fewer people identify as an Independent with no partisan leanings, and those who showed partisan leanings have moved further and further toward the respective party aligned with their values.

Overall, the data suggests that moderate bipartisanship has been in decline for decades and polarization is the new normal in American politics.

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