Why We Shouldn’t Trust ‘Independents’

Sean Hannity: “I’m not a Republican, though people often mistake me for one.”

(From Political Wire, quoted from a Playboy interview I’m not going to click through to read).

Or, to quote John Sides:

The three myths [about independents] are:

1) Independents are the largest partisan group.

2) Independents are actually independent.

3) Change in the opinions of independents is always consequential.

Sean Hannity is perfectly free to call himself whatever he wants. But he is obviously a functional Republican.

Keep this in mind the next time someone tells you about how independents are a huge group of voters. For whatever reason, our political culture values calling oneself “independent,” and discourages people from identifying themselves as party regulars — if you ask people whether they vote the candidate or the party, an overwhelming majority will go with “candidate.”

Our political behavior, on the other hand, demonstrates considerably partisan behavior — most of us, most of the time, do in fact for party, not candidate.

All of which is not only very familiar to anyone who has studied the evidence, but should be obvious to anyone who listens to political actors talk.

A reminder of my good-enough way of thinking about how the actual electorate breaks down: it’s one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, one-third independent…but that final one third is itself really one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third (and thus one-ninth overall) true independent. And what’s more, those true independents are overwhelmingly the least informed and least attentive to politics; the stereotyped careful independent who carefully reads up on the issues and the candidates in order to make up her mind does exist, but she’s a tiny, tiny, party of the electorate (I’ve never seen numbers, but I’m guessing some fraction of one percent).

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.