If ‘Independent’ were a party, it could dominate American politics

If the nation’s political independents somehow formed a party, polls suggest, they could dominate American politics.

Two-fifths of Americans identified as independent in 2022, far more than stood with either party, according to Gallup. As a political identity, “independent” has polled better than Democrat or Republican since 2009.

It wasn’t always so. Going back to the era of former President Reagan, voters have generally identified as Democrat, Republican or independent in roughly equal measure. Independents pulled ahead in the Clinton ‘90s, faded in the Bush ‘00s, then surged anew after the election of former President Obama in 2008.

The rise of the independents comes at a time of widespread public disillusion with both parties: the polarization, the vitriol, the sheer illogic of a binary system so broad that it puts Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the left-wing New York congresswoman, and Joe Manchin, the right-leaning West Virginia senator, under the same Democratic tent.

And consider the word itself. “Independent” sounds so empowering, so liberating, so … American.

“As things get really nasty, it feels kind of virtuous to be above it all,” said Richard Arenberg, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

Independents outnumber Republicans and Democrats in many states that report party affiliation. (Not all do.) As of October 2022, according to Ballotpedia, independents made up roughly 35 percent of the electorate in North Carolina and Oregon, 40 percent in New Hampshire and Connecticut, 45 percent in Colorado and Rhode Island, 60 percent in Massachusetts and Alaska, and 90 percent in Arkansas.

The share of registered independents is rising at a time when more than two dozen states offer open primaries, enabling unaffiliated voters to cast ballots for either party. North Carolina, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Colorado, Rhode Island and Arkansas are all among the states with open primaries.

As a voting bloc, independents can be hard to pin down. In a nation with two broad — and broadly unpopular — political brands, “independent” describes a growing swath of the public that chooses not to identify with either one.

“We slap the label of ‘independent’ on anybody and anything that isn’t a registered Democrat or Republican,” Arenberg said. “There’s all sorts of dogs and cats in that category.”

Across nearly three decades of polling, Pew Research has found that most self-proclaimed independents lean Democrat or Republican, in roughly equal shares.

Most independents, in fact, are Democrats or Republicans in all but name. They vote for their party as reliably as the party faithful.

“They’ll often say, ‘I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the candidate, and I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life,’” said Samara Klar, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.

A small subset of independents, representing less than one tenth of the voting public, claim no partisan leaning at all. These true independents tend not to care much about politics — they’re not big on C-SPAN.

Energize them, political scientists say, and you can turn an election.

“We’ve been locked into a very long era of close political contests between the parties,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. In a nail-biter election, “a change in the behavior of even a small percentage of the population can have a huge impact on the outcome.”

Independents skew slightly male. They tend to be young. Gallup polling finds that a majority of both Generation Z and millennials identify as independent, with boomers and the Silent Generation gradually shedding the label as they age.

“Younger voters, you know, they haven’t made up their mind yet,” said Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “Over time, folks will usually pick a party.”

Or not. Gallup found millennials and Gen Xers clinging to political independence as they age. Among millennials, some of whom are entering their forties, the share who identify as independent has risen steadily over the past two decades, from 42 percent in 2002 to 52 percent in 2022.

In Generation X, a cohort now firmly ensconced in midlife, the share of independents rose from 39 percent in 2002 to 44 percent in 2022.

That trend, coupled with a strong independent streak in Generation Z, could explain why independents are rising as a share of the full electorate.

And why are middle-aged Americans rebuffing the nation’s political parties?

Simply put, they don’t like them. Only two-fifths of Americans have a favorable opinion of Democrats or Republicans, as of 2022, according to Gallup. The last time both parties enjoyed majority favor was 2005.

“The record of the two established political parties in governing the country over the last two decades has not been a great one,” Galston said. “If that’s your formative political experience, then your willingness to affiliate with the political parties that contributed to this mess is not going to be very strong.”

Countless surveys show the American public eyeing the political sphere with growing disdain. Most Americans disapprove of how Congress is doing its job. Each of the past two presidents, Biden and Trump, has struggled with low approval ratings. Partisan squabbling dominates the daily news cycle. Both parties have an image problem.

“There’s been a growing stigma about partisanship among the American public,” said Klar, coauthor of a recent book on independent politics.

“We’ve seen a lot of open hostility among our leaders, and that doesn’t convey how Americans themselves feel. Most Americans are moderates. Most Americans don’t like to talk about politics a lot. Most Americans don’t want to think about politics a lot.”

If “Democrat” and “Republican” carry a partisan stigma, “independent” surely does not. Voters may identify as independent in an act of electoral defiance, or simply to assert that they are capable of independent thought.

“In American culture, when you call something ‘independent,’ it’s a moral category,” Galston said. “It’s a term of praise: ‘I’m thinking for myself. I’m not an automaton.’”

Such is the allure of the independent label that 36 percent of New Jersey voters chose not to affiliate with either party, as of last fall, even though the state has closed primaries.

“It’s kind of the ideological mood of the state,” said Ashley Koning, assistant professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “It’s kind of an expression of their belief that there needs to be some kind of change, that they’re not satisfied with the status quo.”

Roughly 70 percent of Americans wish they had more than two parties to choose from, according to Pew surveys.

Third parties and alternative candidates haven’t made much of a dent in American politics since the 1800s. One recent challenge comes from the Forward Party, formed in 2021 and identified with former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, both centrists.

Forward Party leaders advocate for open primaries and ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and might help third-party candidates compete.

If every self-proclaimed independent joined the Forward Party, the two-party system might soon be history. But that’s not how most independents operate.

“At the end of the day,” Koning said, “independent voters just kind of go back to the parties to which they lean.”

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