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There are more self-identified Independents among America’s voters than there are self-identified Democrats or Republicans. It has been that way for a very long time. Gallup says so.

Why So Many Independents

Gallup asks American voters this question: In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, Democrat, or Independent? Gallup has asked that question for years—at least ten times each year, in fact.

The most recent data (from December 2018) has the answer this way:

  • Independents 39%
  • Democrats 32%
  • Republicans 26%.

In January 2004, the numbers were similar but flipped for the parties, 40% (I), 32% (R), and 28% (D).

Affiliation numbers have fluctuated widely between 2004-2018—Independents 46% high/27% low, Democrats 40%/25%, and Republicans 39%/21% —but Independents have been on top most of the time. Even when the Democrats took the top spot (and 2012 was the last time that happened), it was by a small margin. Independents re-took the lead quickly.

In its survey work, Gallup asks a follow-up question: As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party? In December 2018, 47% of those surveyed said Democrat, and 40% replied Republican. Fourteen years ago this month, the responses were flipped—48% R and 46% D.

What can we make of these findings?

For one thing, it helps explain why the Republicans (always in third place in electorate preference) resort to shenanigans to keep pace. I’m talking about redrawing districts via gerrymandering and engaging in hanky-panky with election results—as we saw post-election 2018 in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Some Independents—let’s call them “The Independent Core”—believe that the American political system is too much about the parties and not enough about candidates and issues.

That kind of behavior can fuel political discontent, and (without question) discontent is one reason why voters are Independent. Some Independents—let’s call them “The Independent Core”—believe that the American political system is too much about the parties and not enough about candidates and issues. They reject the notion of ‘following the party line’ and find independent status to be a preferable democratic response. I’m one voter who feels that way.

But if there’s anything we know from the study of alternative-to-the-mainstream options, it’s this: those at the core aren’t the only people who self-affiliate with an alternative. A diverse group of people affiliates for a variety of reasons—not just one reason. Political Independents are no exception.

Linda Killian, author of Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents, identifies four types of Independent voters—those who are socially moderate and fiscally conservative, the ‘even more’ socially conservative, social and economic progressives (where I settle), and suburbanites who shift politically over time. For one reason or another, these voters feel more comfortable expressing their preferences as Independents vis-à-vis as Democrats or Republicans.

Killian offers other insights about America’s Independents. First, about 50% of Independents don’t vote consistently for one party or the other. The other 50% does.

Second, Independents generally care about the political process and keep up-to-date on issues—even though they tend to vote less frequently, partially because many can’t vote in their state primaries.

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Third, Independents are less likely than party affiliates to be swayed by negative campaigns and ads.

Fourth, Independents’ stances can differ from those expressed by party-affiliated counterparts. For example, Independents tend to care more about the deficit than Democrats, and they care more about the environment than Republicans.

And, fifth, Independents tend to be more interested in opening up the electoral process (e.g., through open primaries) than in creating a third (Independent) party.

Political analyst Mark Barabak believes that many Independents shy away from party affiliation for a reason that extends beyond politics. In his opinion, it’s another example of people losing faith in America’s once-hallowed institutions. “The political parties are emblems of a detested establishment that routinely leaves them (voters) choosing at election time among a set of lesser evils,” Barabak opines.

I feel that way, too. It is one reason—but not the only reason—why I’m an Independent.

I want to be a Democrat, but I can’t be a Democrat. Why not? I’d be a Democrat if the Democratic Party weren’t so Republican. (See, for example, Richard D. Wolff’s recent essay). That’s not a cynical response and it’s not a play on words, either. It’s grounded in experiences of my youth.

Growing up, I was drawn to the Democratic Party (writ large) and also to the moderate branch of the Republican Party. There were Moderate Republicans back then.

I grew up in New York State with Thomas E. Dewey (R, 1943-54), Averill Harriman (D, 1955-58), and Nelson Rockefeller (R, 1959-1973) in the governor’s office. Jacob Javits (R, 1957-1981) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D, 1977-2001) were in the Senate. Jack Kemp (R, 1971-1989) served in the House.

The political landscape shifted seismically the year I came of voting age—1964, to be specific—and leaders like Rockefeller, Javits, and Moynihan slowly (but surely) fell out of favor. That year, LBJ signed The Civil Rights Act, and Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination. LBJ’s action turned the South ‘Red,’ and Goldwater’s nomination (over moderate Rockefeller) moved the Party decidedly to the Right.

Those epochal actions changed America’s political landscape in ways that we still feel today. Moderate Republicans vanished, and establishment Democrats ran away from the Left.

Since then, the Democratic Party has been largely a Centrist party and the Republicans have stayed to the Right. There have been periods of movement in either direction, of course—the Dems more liberal, the Repubs less conservative, from time to time—but those moves (as I evaluate them) were arguably constrained and inarguably ephemeral.

There are Progressive Democrats, for sure, but that doesn’t mean the Democratic Party is Progressive. It isn’t. Party leaders don’t want the Democratic Party to be a Progressive party, and they’ve said as much. They favor ‘diversity of political expression’ instead. Nancy Pelosi is the prime spokesperson.

The way I see it, there’s nothing on the horizon that will change the data Gallup has been reporting. And my status as a Wanna’-be (but-can’t-be) Democrat isn’t likely to change, either.

I do wonder, though, how many Independents would be Democrats if the Party wasn’t so middle-of-the- road? There’s too much focus on ‘the middle class’ for my taste and not enough focus on the commonwealth—‘poor people,’ as they used to be called … back in the day when Democrats were Democrats.

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Frank Fear