INDEPENDENTS DAY…. Chris Cillizza notes this afternoon, “In the wake of Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s (R) victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in last week’s Senate special election, a debate has been raging over independents.”

And part of the underlying problem with that debate is that the definition of “independent” is far too vague to be of any real value.

John Sides’ item earlier has been making the rounds, and I can only hope the political media takes notice. He refers back to the case he presented a couple of months ago:

[H]ere is the problem: Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter.

When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the “independent leaners.” … The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s. […]

The significance of independent leaners is this: they act like partisans…. There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans.

Most of the time, “independents” are thought of as a group of “moderate” or “centrist” voters — as if the right sides with Republicans, the left sides with Democrats, and the middle stays “independent.”

That’s wrong. The Washington Post published a lengthy analysis of political independents in July 2007, based on a survey conducted by the Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The result was a pretty straightforward reminder: there’s an enormous amount of political diversity among independents.

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

Appealing to “independents” is inherently tricky if “independents” don’t even agree with one another.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.