Americans love the concept of independence, whether it’s about annually celebrating freedom from the British or fetishizing individualism. In honor of America’s Independence Day, we figured it was as good a time as any to explore America’s political independents.1
What makes this a tricky task, though, is that independents aren’t really all that, well, independent in their beliefs. In fact, the overwhelming majority of independents lean toward one party or the other and have ideologies that closely mirror those parties.
That suggests independents aren’t so much bound together by what they believe as by a refusal to label themselves. That makes for a messy demographic picture. So here’s a dive into what this complicated group looks like, by the numbers:
1. Being independent is in style
In the 1990s, the share of Americans who considered themselves independents hovered below 40 percent, and in the early 2000s, it was even lower — around one-third of Americans took on that label. But sometime after 2004, that share started growing, hitting a recent high of 47 percent in late 2014. Indeed, for most of the time since 2010, a plurality of Americans have claimed they are politically independent.2
In the past few years, the upward trend has leveled off a bit, and election 2016 may be one reason why. Earlier this year, noting that independents had registered their lowest share of the population in six years, Gallup pointed out that the share of independents falls every presidential election year.
Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones hazarded a guess why: “The visibility the presidential campaign gives to the two major parties, and the resulting attachment Americans may feel to the party of their preferred candidate, may explain this cyclical drop in the percentage of independents,” he wrote. Indeed, the share of independents seems to have bounced back slightly in the last few months.
The longer-term trend in rising independent-ism is likely linked to a growing distaste for both parties. Approval ratings of both parties have dropped off considerably in the last couple of decades, in the 1990s up through the early 2000s, favorability ratings for both parties were often above 50 percent. Today, both parties are at around 40 percent.
Relatedly, Americans seem to perceive “independent” as a more socially acceptable label than “Democrat” or “Republican,” as Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov argued in their 2016 book. Being independent, especially right now, is simply very on-trend.
“Identifying as independent is a way to avoid partisan labels in the hope of impressing others,” they write. (They expanded on this at Vox in early 2016.)
2. Independent does not equal moderate
You could easily think independents are middle-of-the-road, looking at recent polls. On most questions, independents fall somewhere between Democrats and Republicans. Thirty-six percent of independents approve of Trump right now, compared to 8 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans. One-quarter of independents believe the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) should be expanded, compared to 1-in-10 Republicans and 6-in-10 Democrats. And on and on.
But that doesn’t mean independents are moderate thinkers, who tend to simply have ideologies somewhere between Democrats and Republicans. Rather, there are a lot of people within that pool of independents who lean toward one party or another, meaning some will cancel each other out, making the group’s numbers as a whole more centrist-looking.
Right now, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 41 percent of Americans are either Republicans or Republican-leaning, and 50 percent are Democrats or Democratic-leaning. That leaves 8 percent of people who claim neither party. (These don’t quite add up to 100 due to rounding.)
Furthermore, independents who claim they “lean” one way or another aren’t necessarily more moderate than partisans. Pew has found that the belief patterns of “leaners” overlap heavily with those of people who identify as Republicans and Democrats.3
3. Young adults are more independent than older adults
The uptick in “independent” identification has been particularly pronounced among millennials, as Pew found in 2014. That survey found that half of millennials at the time saw themselves as independents, up a full 10 percent from 2007 — a much sharper climb that other generations had.
So what’s happening? One possibility is that young adults are “unmoored from institutions,” both political and non-political, as Pew put it. That survey also found that millennials aren’t members of churches at the same rates as older adults, Pew pointed out.
This growing “unmooring” is visible elsewhere, too; only around 4 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are union members, compared to 13 percent among 55- to 64-year-olds. (And many more of them were members decades ago; as of 1983, roughly 20 percent of American workers were union members.) In other words, young adults who are unshaped by other common cultural institutions refuse to claim a political one.4
Another factor that may contribute to millennials ditching political parties: feeling disconnected. After the 2016 election, CIRCLE, a Tufts University organization that studied young voters, also noted that “just weeks before Election Day, only 30% of youth had been contacted by a presidential campaign or political party.” Ideology plays a part, too: the CIRCLE authors also noted that young conservatives’ beliefs don’t match up all that closely with those of older Republicans.
4. Independents really don’t like the GOP health care plan
True, independents tend to fall somewhere between Dems and Republicans on many issues. For example, the NPR/PBS/Marist poll showed that only around one-third of independents (including leaners) trust public opinion polls “a great deal” or “a good amount,” which puts them between Democrats (50 percent of whom trust polls) and Republicans (28 percent), though slightly closer to Republicans.5
Independents clearly swing way much more to one side in a few other areas, however. Twenty-seven percent of independents feel “better off” since Trump became president, compared to 9 percent of Democrats and a whopping 73 percent of Republicans.
This is also true in the current health care fight. The poll also showed that 68 percent of independents disapprove of the Senate Republicans’ health care bill, putting them much closer to Democrats (78 percent) than Republicans (21 percent).
All of which is to say that on some topics, the declarations of independents6 as a whole aren’t necessarily all that different from the declarations of partisans.
- Hi. Let me kick this off by saying: Forgive me. I don’t really do puns. This is just kind of a demographic-du-jour article that journalists are assigned on holidays. Like writing about the politics of union members on Labor Day or moms on Mother’s Day or trees on Arbor Day. Granted, this is a lot more of a stretch than those are, being more homophone-based than group-based. I don’t know what to tell you.
At least I won’t decide to top it off with a headline like “In America, Every Day Is Independents’ Day.” I’m better than that. Right?
- Me again. I gotta say, the real kick in the teeth here is that partway through this article I noticed that Pew did its own thing on independents on Independence Day 2016. God. I hate it when that happens.
- “Wait a minute. Independents are barely even a Thing?” you ask. “Why am I reading this?” But that’s valuable information itself, isn’t it? Aren’t you fascinated? [Tenderly takes your hand.] Finish this with me, eh?
- I suppose here is where a lot of readers are rolling their eyes and joking about millennials taking selfies while they get tattoos and color their hair blue and complain about student debt and drink $9 latte cocktails and take Ubers to their SoulCycle classes all while continually asserting their individuality and demanding trophies for all of it. Go on. Get it all out. I’ll wait. I’m sure it’s hilarious.
On the other hand, one might also consider it obnoxiously “millennial” and self-referential to write disclaimers for a pun-inspired demographic-of-the-day article by footnoting the hell out of said article. “Ohhhh lalala, look at meee. I’m somehow above writing a novelty holiday article.” Psh. Get over yourself, right?
Oh God. I don’t even know who I’m snarking at anymore. I need to lie down.
- Side note: You have to wonder how demoralizing this is for the poll workers at the call center.
“OK, ma’am. Question 35. Do you trust pollsters?”
“Well, this is awkward.”
- I know. I know.