If you’re an observer of American politics, you’ve probably heard a lot about “Political Independents” — people who insist that they don’t identify with either the Republican or Democratic parties. They’re often treated as the sober, moderate middle caught between two rabid extremes: polls pin partisans in polar opposition to each other on most salient topics — police reform, election laws, climate action, healthcare policy — while Independents dutifully take their place somewhere in between them.
Across the internet, you can find pictures of art installations where random objects are deliberately placed so that a light shined on them makes a single, cohesive shadow. Blocks can be made to look like a human face, recycled coins like Atlas bearing the world — but the objects aren’t actually part of a consistent whole. They’re just arranged to look that way when a light’s pointed at it in exactly the right way.
That’s how it is with political independents. Their “moderation” on policy issues is nothing but a trick of the light.
To be sure, this isn’t a novel or groundbreaking claim. Despite how they’re covered by the press and punditry writ large, political scientists and pollsters have been wise to this trick for decades now. The fact is, “independent” is a misnomer. Most political independents are anything but; they actually lean consistently towards one party over the other. The few that don’t (something between 5–10% of American adults, depending on who’s asking and when) are the kinds of people who generally wouldn’t be able to correctly identify who Kamala Harris or John Roberts are: I’d say that they avoid politics like the plague but, apparently, 2020–2021 has taught us that not everyone is actually all that inclined towards plague-avoidance. But I digress...
More to the point, this contingent of “true independents” is far from the majority of the bunch. Most of them are leaners — and the difference between these leaners’ policy preferences and the preferences of their more partisan counterparts is less than you might otherwise think.
Most leaners are partisans in disguise — and have the preferences to match.
The 2020 wave of the American National Election Survey (ANES) asked over 8,000 total respondents hundreds of questions querying their opinions, attitudes, and positions on a plethora of topics. I looked at how partisans and leaners answered questions on 31 prominent policy issues, ranging from assault weapons buybacks, to LGBT rights, to emissions regulations, to international trade. In order to make all of the answers comparable across such a wide array of issues, I rescaled responses so that they were consistent across all of the questions: -1 to 1 — with -1 being the most “liberal” option respondents could pick (say “increasing the minimum wage”) and 1 being the most “conservative” position offered (“abolishing the minimum wage”). From there, I could compare leaners’ responses with their — apparently reluctant — co-partisans.
For Republicans and Democrats alike, the gap in policy preferences between leaners and outright partisans were exceptionally small. In fact, most of the time they were so small that it wasn’t possible to conclude that the difference was significantly greater than zero.
On average, the distance between Democrat and Democratic leaners’ positions were just 0.02 points on the two point, -1 to 1 scale. The distance between Republicans and Republican leaners was slightly larger (at least in the same sense that a hamster is bigger than a gerbil since neither are particularly large in the first place); 0.04 points on the scale. Even when distances were significantly different statistically speaking (which they were less than 30 percent of the time for Democrats and under half the time for Republicans), they were not actually substantively large.
(Which, if anything, is a nice reminder that statistical significance does not necessarily imply substantive importance — or vice versa).
This similarity exposes the reason why independents appear more “moderate” as a whole. If you gather a bunch of people on the left and a bunch of people on the right together into a single group, the average is going to be somewhere in between them. This despite the fact that few people actually take up residence in that middle zone in the preference space on the day’s more pressing issues. The middle ground tends to be the most heavily populated on topics where the parties and their elites haven’t clearly signalled what the “correct” position for their camp is. On the issues on the forefront of American politics, most leaners are noticeably to the right or to the left. As a whole they just cancel each other out. The picture below is for people’s preferences on the scope of government — but the point holds pretty consistently across most of the more salient issues in the bunch.
Independents differ in interesting ways! But policy ain’t one.
To be sure, there’s a lot of things that do differ for independents compared to partisans. They (shockingly) have substantially weaker affective ties to political parties. They tend to have less trust in government than partisans. It’s also fascinating, in and of itself, that it’s the preferred partisan identifier for roughly 40% of American adults. That, despite holding nearly identical policy preferences as an active political party, most of them try to eschew partisanship altogether. All of that is worth talking about, writing about, and digging into.
But we need to stop pretending that, when it comes to policy, “Independents” comprise a distinct group apart from, but caught between, Republicans and Democrats. Democratic leaners tend to be just as left-facing in their views as self-professed Democrats — same with Republicans and Republican leaners on the right. The fact that they look otherwise is an artifact of the fact that we’ve lumped a bunch of antipolar people under the same label. It’s all just a trick of the light.
Peter Licari is a data scientist and social scientist specializing in American political behavior. He received his PhD in American Politics and Political Methodology from the University of Florida in the Fall of 2020. The opinions expressed are his own. He can also be found on YouTube and on Twitter(@PRLPoliSci). What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running, video games with his ever-patient wife, Stephanie, playing with his daughter, Rosalina, walking his dog, Dude, and holding oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.