In 2016, a plurality of individuals call themselves political independents. In fact, more Americans identify as independents than ever before in history.
What does the rise in independents mean for American political parties? Our book, Independent Politics, suggests that this increase in independents sends four signals both to party leadership and party activists.
When considering people who are independent, the first instinct may be to examine how these people differ politically from those who identify as partisans. Yet as surveys demonstrate – and as political science research has often shown – there are few political differences between people who call themselves independents and people who call themselves partisans.
Our research suggests that identifying as “independent” is less a political position than an effective way to send a social signal to others. We find that people believe that calling themselves independent is the best way to make a good impression on others. In turn, if parties want to convince independents to join them, they may be better off making themselves more socially, rather than politically, appealing.
That people believe that independents make better impressions than is a function of political context. We demonstrate that people are more likely to dislike parties when they are reminded of partisan conflict. Of course, partisan disagreement is inevitable – the parties have different positions and an important part of politics is letting people know about these positions. Nonetheless, when partisans appear to be embroiled in insurmountable disagreement, partisanship takes on a negative hue.
We find that Americans do not want to be associated with the anger and negativity of modern-day partisanship. As a result, even if they agree with the party’s issue positions and even if they largely support the party’s candidates, people become hesitant to publically declare themselves as partisans and go “undercover” using the “independent” label.
Party activists are a group that may initially seem to helpful to a party. They are rank-and-file partisans who volunteer their time to help a party or, at the very least, are open and vocal about their party support.
Activists, however, are different from many ordinary people. They are likely to be more ideologically extreme and may feel more strongly that their party has the correct set of positions. As a result, activists can emphasize the very anger and disagreement between the two parties that people who call themselves independent find so distasteful. In short, while activists may help promote the party to other strong partisans, they are unlikely to bring undercover partisans back into the party’s fold.
People who are hiding their partisan preferences behind the label “independent” face a difficult choice during an election. On the one hand, they do still support a party. On the other hand, they prefer not to have a connection to a party. The presence of a “non-establishment” candidate who belongs to one of the two major parties solves the problem.
A partisan candidate who consistently reinforces that he or she is different allows undercover partisans to support their party, all the while breaking the partisan mold. Extrapolating from our research, it is likely that partisans hiding behind the independent label will be particularly drawn to candidates who publicly flaunt their dissociation from the “establishment”, all the while running for office under that party’s umbrella.