CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENCE….My old J-school friend Dave Lesher is the co-author of an op-ed in the LA Times today that notes the rise of independent voters in California over the past decade. The key statistic he cites is that the number of voters who “decline to state” a party identification has doubled since 1990 to 18% of the total electorate.

Is this a real trend? I’m skeptical for two reasons. The first is found a bit further down in Lesher’s piece:

Polls show that about 60% of California independents favor tougher environmental regulations over economic growth, support a ban on offshore oil drilling and believe that global warming is a serious problem. Independent voters are also among the strongest supporters of such social innovations as medical marijuana use, assisted suicide for the terminally ill, the morning-after pill and hybrid automobiles. They back gay and lesbian marriage by a 20-point margin and a woman’s right to abortion by 3 to 1.

At the same time, independents are largely responsible for keeping Proposition 13’s anti-tax feelings alive. Most say they believe that government “wastes a lot of taxpayer money” and that Proposition 13 was a “good thing,” according to the institute’s surveys. Philosophically, independents split from Democrats by favoring smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Still, an institute poll in January found independents supporting more money for education and health programs as well as proposed ballot measures to generate funds for healthcare and preschool.

Whether they decline to state or not, this sounds like a pretty liberal group to me. The only real evidence of non-liberalism is the fact that they supposedly approve of “smaller government” in the abstract while at the same time supporting virtually every actual government program that pollsters care to name. This is fairly standard issue incoherence, though, not really evidence of true independence.

The second reason for skepticism is shown in the chart on the right, taken from a Jon Rauch column that I read a few days ago and have been mulling over since. Basically, by breaking down voting behavior and party ID, Rauch found that most self-described independents aren’t very independent at all. Nationwide, about 40% of independents lean Democratic and about 30% lean Republican, and it turns out that the leaners vote every bit as as loyally as those who define themselves as “weak” party identifiers. “Independents” who lean Democratic vote for Democratic presidential candidates about 80% of the time, and independents who lean Republican vote for Republican presidential candidates about 85% of the time. That’s not very independent.

Rauch’s chart might not prove quite as much as he thinks, but it’s still an instructive data point. When you combine it with the broad support for traditional Democratic issues that Lesher documents, I suspect that the growing number of California independents might indicate hipster attitude more than an underlying reality. “Pox on both your house” independence might be a trendy pose, but I’ll bet that most of those independents are basically just Democrats in sheep’s clothing.

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