Approximately one-third of American adults self-identify or register as political “independents,” declining membership in any political party. By some estimates, the number of political independent voters vastly outstrips the number of self-identified Democrats or Republicans. However, party registration records or self-identification surveys do not reveal whether political independents truly are independent, showing no true preference for candidates or ideas from either major U.S. political party.
A new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin presents new evidence that true political “independents” in the United States may be more rare than party registration and self-identification would suggest. To summarize the study’s major findings, self-identified independents, when given tests to rank their preference for policies from either the Republican or Democratic Party, broke down into three categories:
- implicitly-Democratic independents who often sided with ideas/positions taken by the Democratic Party,
- implicitly-Republican independents who often sided with ideas/positions taken by the Republican party, and
- independents who showed no preference for either party’s ideas or positions.
The high number of implicitly-Democratic and implicitly-Republican independents dented the total number of independents in the study. Furthermore, implicitly-partisan independents still tended to prefer the ideas of their (implicitly-chosen) party even when the study’s authors switched party labels on the ideas or positions. Thus, implicitly-Republican independents showed a preference for an idea or position labeled as “Republican” even if that idea or position was in reality advocated by the Democratic Party, and vice versa.
The study’s authors speculate that so many independents may implicitly prefer one of the two parties due to a desire to appear objective or unbiased, though their current study does not test this possibility. Implicitly-partisan independents could also choose this label out of displeasure with aspects of the United States’ two-party system, concern with the current highly-polarized political atmosphere, preference for a minor party, or other desires to avoid strict identification with either the Democratic or Republican Party.
A new story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition program nicely summarizes the study’s major findings and implications, and presents these results in the context of recent United States national general elections (held every two years). The entire segment is worth your time.
This psychological study raises several new questions:
- What fraction of current political independents show no implicit preference for either major political party in the United States?
- Has the total increase recently in self-identified independents consisted solely of implicitly-partisan independents shedding their partisan labels?
- How consistent are these findings? Will a majority of self-identified independents always be implicitly-partisan?
- How do implicitly-Democratic or implicitly-Republican independents compare to their self-identified partisan compatriots? For example, are implicitly-Republican independents as partisan as self-identified Republicans? Or more? Less?
All in all, these new results show that, while the frequency of political independents is near an all-time high, the reality of partisanship in the United States, reflected by voter choice at the ballot box, is quite different.
- Hawkins CB, Nosek BA. 2012. “Motivated Independence? Implicit Party Identity Predicts Political Judgments Among Self-Proclaimed Independents.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/0146167212452313. [Abstract only. Full text requires a subscription to the journal.]
- Vedantam, S. Broadcast on National Public Radio‘s Morning Edition program, 22 August 2012. “Are Independents Just Partisans In Disguise?” It’s all Politics blog. National Public Radio. [NPR news segment summarizing the above study.]
- Jones JM. 9 January 2012. “Record-High 40% of Americans Identify as Independents in ’11: More Americans identify as Democrats than as Republicans, 31% to 27%.” Gallup Politics.
- United States Republican Party (elephant) and Democratic Party (donkey) logos provided courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey.