Independents

No, Independents Aren't Just a Bunch of 'Closet Partisans'

A new paper throws cold water on a poli-sci cliché.

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The conventional wisdom in political science right now is that "true" independents are rare. Many people may call themselves independents, the argument goes, but almost all of them are really "closet partisans" who are effectively attached to one party or the other; they just prefer, for whatever psychological reason, to think of themselves as nonaligned.

A new paper by the Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina pushes back against that narrative. Among his points:

• It is true that most independents tend to prefer one party and to vote with it. But that does not mean the same independents always prefer the same party. When they are surveyed over time, a significant number of independents switch back and forth when asked which party they like better, depending on who they plan to vote for in that particular election. The partisan preference follows the vote rather than the other way around.

• In addition to asking independents whether they lean toward a particular party, pollsters ask the members of those parties how strong their partisan loyalty is. Republican-leaning independents and weak Republicans do tend to vote alike, and Democratic-leaning independents and weak Democrats tend to vote alike too. But there are some notable places where they veer apart. For example: When Barry Goldwater ran a more purely conservative presidential campaign in 1964, Fiorina writes, "weak Republicans abandoned Barry Goldwater in droves, but independent leaning Republicans registered support almost 20 percentage points higher." Similarly, when George McGovern ran to the left of most Democratic nominees in 1972, he "did not win even a majority of weak Democrats, but 60 percent of independent leaning Democrats supported him."

To explain this, Fiorina suggests that "independent Republicans voted more heavily for Goldwater not because they were closet Republicans; rather, they were independents who felt closer to the Republicans in that election." Ditto for the Democrats: By changing their ideological offerings, the party picked up support from people who ordinarily felt homeless (and lost it from people who ordinarily saw the party as a home).

PublicAffairs

• Independents are also more likely than weak partisans to vote for third-party candidates. George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan all did much better among independents than among weakly attached members of the major parties.

Needless to say, those five men didn't all draw from the same independents. As Fiorina argues, "independents are a heterogenous category. Some are closet partisans. Some are ideological centrists. Some are cross-pressured, preferring one party on some issues but a different party on other issues. Some are unhappy with both parties but one more than the other, and some are, quite simply, clueless." But they cannot, as a group, be reduced to one big lump of partisans in denial.

Why does that matter? Because that familiar two-colored map of America, where everywhere is either red or blue, just doesn't represent the range of opinion in this country. "The vote is a binary choice, a blunt and often inaccurate way to express one's preferences on the issues," Fiorina reminds us. "A given voter might repeatedly make the same decision in the voting booth even while disagreeing substantially with the party for whom she votes—so long as she disagrees even more substantially with the other party. Many voters face just such a situation in 2016 when they must choose between the two most negatively viewed candidates in modern times."

"Must choose" is a stretch, as Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Evan McMullin, and our good friend Mr. Just Stay Home could tell you. But you know what the man means.

Bonus link: "In the Age of Trump, Republicans Are In for a Reckoning—Or a Realignment."

NEXT: Cato scholars pose questions for final debate

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  1. Many people may call themselves independents, the argument goes, but almost all of them are really “closet partisans” who are effectively attached to one party or the other; they just prefer, for whatever psychological reason, to think of themselves as nonaligned.

    I know several of these people. They preen and fluff their feathers about their “political independence” and their analytical prowess, yet it’s plain they would rather be boiled in oil than vote for a Republican (Libertarians are less likely than cannibals to get their votes).

  2. The idea that everyone’s a closet partisan is really quite depressing and cynical. It’s basically the same as saying that everyone is hopelessly tribalistic and so we might as well give up on racism and religious prejudice and every other form of bigotry. Because if they’re hopeless partisan, then the same basic tribalism is going to affect every other group affiliation.
    Have some faith in humanity.

    1. People who are actual partisans want to believe that everyone wallows in the same muck that they do.

      1. It’s so nice being a non-aligned moral superior, amirite?

    2. The idea that everyone’s a closet partisan is really quite depressing and cynical.

      Don’t you pretty much accuse everyone you disagree with of being a closet Trumpkin while patting yourself on the back for your independent record of unblemished party-line Democrat votes, you stupid cunt?

  3. Because that familiar two-colored map of America, where everywhere is either red or blue, just doesn’t represent the range of opinion in this country.

    That’s correct, but it sure represents the results in our winner-take-all system.

  4. What motivates a vote? Partisanship seems the most common reason. Single issues sometimes. One thing is certain: having principle as a guide for your vote puts you far outside the mainstream.

    1. What if you are a partisan because of your principles?

      1. Semantics.

        Never or hardly ever voting for one party because it is completely unmoored from principle is only the appearance of partisanship.

      2. Which party would you ally with in that case?

        1. I cannot think of a situation where I would ever vote for a Democrat, while I have voted for Republicans and Libertarians.

          1. So the principle in question is “not voting for democrats”?

          2. I cannot think of a situation where I would ever vote for a Democrat

            Possible answers for me:
            1. Zombie Grover Cleveland
            2. The (very) rare instance of a pro-2A Democrat against a “common sense measures” Republican
            3. Certain local offices where the Democrat is saner/less corrupt than the Republican

          3. I voted for a Dem a couple of times. The guy was genuinely principled. Half-way through his second term he changed parties because it finally sank in that the Dems were completely unprincipled. He was black and once he got into the inner circle discovered that what Trump has been saying recently about the Dems with regards to the black community is absolutely true. He has been out of office for over a decade but we still keep up on the facebooks. He is the only non-family member I use facebook for.

          1. The left believes in magic, specifically magical spells. They believe if they say something it becomes truth.

          2. Wow, Jan Brady is now a journalist.

          3. Aside… not sure why the test tubes contain glitter, but it makes me think that it’s the party of Gay Science or something.

    2. What motivates a vote?

      Spite

      1. Don’t forget greed or envy.

    3. What motivates a vote?

      Who are the most reliable voters?

      Retired people & public sector union members. why? Because they get paid by the government.

      1. That and they have the free time to do it. And unions apply social pressure to encourage people to vote and to vote the way the union recommends.

  5. “Must choose” is a stretch, as Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Evan McMullin, and our good friend Mr. Just Stay Home could tell you. But you know what the man means.

    -1 libertarian moment??

  6. My answer to the alt text: All of those people are black, so Kmele isn’t one of them.

    1. False. Jesse listed them in the order they appear in the picture.

  7. Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina

    It’s always Morris or Pierre.

    1. There is no such thing as political science. When I hear ‘political scientist’ I think the same thing as when I hear ‘Ethicist’.

  8. If Fiorona’s qyote is correct, it means “Independents” is a catchall category that tells you minimal but relatively useless information about what those people are not rather tan what they are and might do. The purpose of putting such a diverse group in a single category seems to be padding the demographics to make them seem more important th han t bey really are.

    1. The purpose of putting such a diverse group in a single category seems to be padding the demographics to make them seem more important th han t bey really are.

      That’s true, but it also begs the question a bit. Why aren’t they important?

      1. They can not be appealed to as a group because they are made up of subgroups with contradictory motivations.

        To evaluate their importance, one would have to analyze how to sppeal to the larger and more likely subgroups.

        1. I think part of it is also because they will work with other groups to cover common ground. An “independent” may not vote lockstop with one major party, but will probably still side with one more often than the other.

          1. Yes, but those are th ed subgroups. And if you appeal to one subgroup, you may be turning off another and th he rest simply do not care for that appeal one way or the other.

            My point is, a heterogenuous political clasification is useless for formulating an appeal to disaffected voters in that classification.

  9. I want to hear more about Mr. Just Stay Home. He sounds like he could be the perfect political candidate.

    1. Sorry no can do. But as a consolation we have a terrifying whirlwind of gender confusion in Mr. B Natural.

  10. I think the way they frame the questions are incorrect.

    Even the people considered “strong partisans” may in fact change from one party to the other over the course of their lives.

    Why are they so substantially different from the creatures called “independents”? – who are the same, yet simply may do the same party-switching more frequently… or maybe not! its just in how they see themselves, regardless.

    I think too often political scientists make stupid operating assumptions about politics as a ‘thing distinct from other cultural identifications’. Its not.

    politics is tribal and cultural. People like the Red/Blue mythic-dichotomy because it gives them a convenient and simple framework that defines “Who they are Not”. And “who they are not” are their enemies…. in theory.

    How people politically identify, and how they see others, is much bigger than politics. How people vote in elections is often irrelevant to the identification issue. People of course want to believe that the election outcomes are ALL that matters; and so the only people we should “study” are the ones who vote.

  11. George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan

    I voted for John Anderson, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan

  12. The Kleptocracy has a lot invested in the inertia of the status quo, and will spare no effort to undermine the law-changing power of libertarian spoiler votes. For the past century mystical, looter, and mystical looters were the only ideologues forming third parties. Instead of an alternative the Republicans, Populists, and Prohibitionists only accelerated the initiation of force and government ownership of the economy. Finally in 1971 the mask slipped and German National Socialism obtruded in the shape of Nixonian prohibitionism, genocide and military-industrial coercion against a backdrop of Soviet International socialism. Libertarian spoiler votes and the Web may well undo the damage to rights accumulated over the course of the previous century.

  13. Shouldn’t the title of this article really be “No, independent doesn’t mean moderate, contrary to popular opinion”?

  14. Promiscuous partisans who ultimately still vote nearly exclusively for the duopoly. Technically correct is the best kind, they say. Muh libertarian moment!

  15. George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan all did much better among independents than among weakly attached members of the major parties.

    Needless to say, those four men

    OK, which one had the sex or species change?

    1. Ha. Good catch. Fixed.

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