The Myth of the Independent Voter / Edition 1 available in Paperback
Few events in American politics over the past two decades have generated more attention than the increasing number of voters calling themselves Independent. By the early 1970s Independents outnumbered Republicans, according to many eminent experts on voting behavior. Yet the authors of this incisive new commentary on American politics claim that most of this widespread speculation on declining party affiliation is simply wrong. They contend that most so-called Independents lean strongly toward one of the two parties and resemblein all important respectseither Democrats or Republicans. Contrary to expert opinion, only a small segment of voters are truly "independent" of either major party.Based on the most up-to-date 1990 data, The Myth of the Independent Voter provides a roadmap of the political arena for the general reader and scholar alike. Debunking conventional wisdom about voting patterns and allaying recent concerns about electoral stability and possible third party movements, the authors uncover faulty polling practices that have resulted in a skewed sense of the American voting population.Demonstrating that most of what has been written about Independents for more than thirty years is myth, this challenging book offers a trenchant new understanding of the party system, voting behavior, and public opinion.
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About the Author
Bruce Keith is an independent scholar in the Bay Area. David Magleby teaches Political Science at Brigham Young University. Candice Nelson teaches Political Science at The American University. Elizabeth Orr works for the city of Denver. Mark Westlye works for the Office of the President of the University of California. Raymond Wolfinger teaches Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
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The Myth of the Independent Voter
By Bruce E. Keith David B. Magleby Candice J. Nelson Elizabeth A. Orr Mark C. Westlye Raymond E. Wolfinger
University of California PressCopyright © 1992 Bruce E. Keith, David B. Magleby, Candice J. Nelson, Elizabeth A. Orr, Mark C. Westlye, and Raymond E. Wolfinger
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePartisanship and Independence
Few contemporary domestic political themes have attracted more attention than the growing number of Americans who choose to call themselves Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. As one textbook observed, "None of the other trends... can match the decline in partisanship and party vitality with respect to the sheer number of words written." The decline of partisanship has been a rare point of consensus among commentators in all parts of the political arena. Scholars and journalists, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans-all agree on this point. The conservative publicist Kevin Phillips wrote in 1982 that "the most enduring phenomenon of the years since the war in Vietnam and Watergate has been the rise in the ranks of independents." The authors of The Changing American Voter, judged the most distinguished contribution to political science in 1976, concluded that the "most dramatic political change in the American public over the past two decades has been the decline of partisanship." This view was shared a dozen years later by the New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith, who wrote that "the most important phenomenon of American politics in the past quarter century has been the rise of independent voters who have at times outnumbered Republicans."
As we will see, not everyone shares this view. However, it remains the preferred interpretation of at least some specialists in voting behavior and a great many students of political parties. The decline of the parties is a favorite theme in American government textbooks, the repository of our discipline's conventional wisdom and the main source of undergraduates' understanding of the political system. Most writers outside political science-historians, authors of big-picture interpretations of the United States, journalists-seem to take for granted the proposition that many fewer American voters are now affected by party ties.
The implications attributed to this putative growth in independence are numerous and momentous. Independents are unconstrained by partisanship from responding to election-year appeals. If more and more voters are becoming Independents, there could be wider and wider swings between the parties. Presumably this is what leads some observers to write that the increase in the number of Independents portends greater political instability. Other anticipated consequences include weaker presidential mandates, richer opportunities for third parties, partisan realignment, a more fragmented Congress, and the end of the current party system. We will examine these predictions in more detail shortly.
The implications for social science are scarcely less important. Party identification is the "foundation" of the "edifice" of conceptualizing and measuring voting associated with the National Election Studies (NES) conducted since 1952 by the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies. For a generation, political scientists had believed that party identification powerfully affected voting decisions and perceptions of political events; it was "the central thread connecting the citizen and the political process." Assumed to be a point of stability in individual behavior, party identification was the baseline against which researchers measured the impact of short-term forces like issues, candidates, and assessments of governmental performance. In its modern meaning, "party identification" is a product of survey research. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are identified by asking respondents to put themselves in one of these three categories. The portentous trend from partisanship to independence reflects an increase in the proportion of respondents who tell interviewers that they consider themselves not Republicans or Democrats but Independents. In the Michigan NES, the share of Independents went from 19 to 23 percent in the 1952-1964 period to a high of 37 percent in 1978. In 1990, 36 percent of the NES sample called themselves Independents.
Any NES respondent who claimed to be an Independent has always been asked if he or she was closer to one or the other party. Until we began our research, analysts of the NES data-the major source of information about individual political behavior-seldom paid attention to this follow-up question. Independents were all those people who claimed this status when answering the initial question about party identification. This book results from our discovery more than fifteen years ago that the second question is essential to an understanding of Independents because it enables analysts to distinguish genuine Independents from those who initially claim this status but then concede that they lean toward the Democrats or Republicans. Thus we can dispel the assumption, once almost universal and still widespread, that all Independents-"the second largest group in the electorate"-share some characteristics that differentiate them in important ways from Republicans and Democrats. This assumption is wrong. Independents, defined inclusively, have little in common. They are more diverse than either Republicans or Democrats. Most of them are not uncommitted, and they are not a bloc. They are largely closet Democrats and Republicans.
Therefore, none of the large generalizations about Independents is correct because as Independents are usually defined, the category includes not one but three kinds of people. Most of the increase in Independents has occurred among the hidden partisans; the high-level speculations apply only to genuine Independents, whose increase has been rather modest.
The gist of our findings about Independents began to circulate among some political scientists as early as the summer of 1975 and was reported at the end of that year in a textbook coauthored by one of us. Our first full statement was in a paper delivered in the summer of 1977. Many of our early findings could have been found one place or another in the literature. Some were mentioned as an aside, an unremarked table, or a paragraph ignored in subsequent chapters. Despite some published clues and an unimaginable number of similar findings in computer printouts, our case against the monolithic conception of Independents was very much a minority view in 1977. Since then, our view has been accepted by some, considered and rejected by others, and (apparently) ignored by others. These developments are discussed at length in chapter 5.
Although we disagree with the revisionist scholars who think that party identification lost much of its importance in the 1970s, our findings are also incompatible with the earlier conventional wisdom associated with researchers at the University of Michigan. The latter difference is less conspicuous because Independents did not occupy such a prominent place in their work. It should be emphasized, however, that none of our findings describes a recent development. With one exception, everything that we say about different types of Independents was as true in the 1950s as it is today. The only difference is the lower level of interest and participation by the genuine Independents, those who deny that they are closer to one party or the other.
Parties in Disrepute A jaundiced view of political parties is part of our most distinguished intellectual heritage. Parties were, after all, among the most unattractive of those "factions" that the Founding Fathers so roundly deplored. Long after parties had become an essential component of the American political system, they were still regarded with suspicion by acute and influential observers. For example, Lord Bryce's model citizen will give close and constant attention to public affairs, recognizing that this is his interest as well as his duty. He will try to comprehend the main issues of policy, bringing to them an independent and impartial mind, which thinks first not of his own, but of the general interest.... If, owing to inevitable differences of opinion as to what are the measures needed for the general welfare, parties become inevitable, he will join one, and attend its meetings, but will repress the impulses of party spirit. Never failing to come to the polls, he will vote for his party candidate only if satisfied by his capacity and honesty.
Bryce was not alone in urging Americans to keep their distance from parties if they had the astuteness and strength of character to do so. This was the outlook in an 1891 high school civics text:
As on the playground, some do not care always to go with the crowd, or even prefer to be by themselves. Such as these, who think for themselves, and dare to stand alone, make the Independents in politics.
They are likely to prefer the good of their country to the success of their party. They will not act with their party, or will leave it, if it is wrong. If the other party changes, as parties sometimes change, and advocates measures that they believe in; if they change their own minds as sensible men sometimes must; or if the other party puts forward better candidates; or if a new party arises, the independent voters are willing to act wherever they believe they can best secure the public welfare.
In short, partisanship had its place, but it was no substitute for the voter's independence of thought and action.
Other students of politics thought that it was up to Independents to rescue the parties:
If the politicians must look after the parties, there should be somebody to look after the politicians, somebody to ask disagreeable questions and to utter uncomfortable truths; somebody to make sure, if possible, before election, not only what but whom the candidate, if elected, is going to represent.... The old parties are not to be reformed from within. It is from without that the attempt must be made, and it is the Independents who must make it. If the attempt should fail, the failure of the experiment of democracy would inevitably follow.
More recently, serious students of politics came to prize parties as an essential part of the polity:
The political parties created democracy and... modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.... The parties are not therefore merely appendages of modern government; they are in the center of it and play a determinative and creative role in it.
Few contemporary political scientists would challenge this view, but most Americans share the Founding Fathers' distaste. In the fall of 1974, in the immediate aftermath of Watergate-a scandal to which neither party contributed-72 percent of the American public said that the parties were the part of the government they "least often trust to do what's right." A mere 13 percent mentioned the president in this connection.
The fundamental explanation for the parties' unpopularity seems to be a belief that they stir up conflict. Jack Dennis, the leading student of the parties' public image, reported that nearly two- thirds of those interviewed agreed that "the political parties more often than not create conflicts where none really exists." Fifty-three percent thought that "our system of government would work a lot more efficiently if we could get rid of conflicts between the parties altogether." In 1980, 56 percent of all NES respondents agreed that "the parties do more to confuse the issues than to provide a clear choice on issues," and just 24 percent dissented from this verdict. Half the sample went so far as to agree that "it would be better if, in all elections, we put no party labels on the ballot."
In view of such sentiments, it is not surprising that the vast majority of Americans deny that a candidate's party is important and insist that they vote for the best candidate, irrespective of party. A month before the 1986 elections, less than 10 percent of registered voters said that the biggest factor in their vote decision would be the candidate's political party.
If party affiliation really influenced the votes of so few people, it would not be the keystone of most efforts in the past thirty-five years to understand voting behavior. We will see that despite their expressions of distaste for the parties, most Americans are powerfully affected by their affiliations with the Democratic or Republican party.
The Michigan View of Party Identification Affiliation with a party can be defined in various ways: legal voter registration, formal "card-carrying" membership, or personal identification. The first of these alternatives is a function of state laws, which vary enormously. In some states there is no registration by party; in others, membership is achieved simply by claiming to be a Democrat or Republican when voting in that party's primary. This diversity makes it impossible to use legal registration as the basis of a nationally uniform definition of party membership. The drawback of the second definition, formal membership in an organization, is its rarity; less than 4 percent of all Americans belong to a party in this sense. The third and most useful manifestation of partisanship is party identification, a subjective identification as a Republican or Democrat.
Reporting their analysis of nationwide surveys in 1952 and 1956, four social scientists at the University of Michigan described party identification as the most stable and important determinant of individual voting decisions and the point of departure for analysis of many aspects of public opinion:
Few factors are of greater importance for our national elections than the lasting attachment of tens of millions of Americans to one of the parties. These loyalties establish a basic division of electoral strength within which the competition of particular campaigns takes place. And they are an important factor in assuring the stability of the party system itself.... Most Americans have this sense of attachment with one party or the other. And for the individual who does, the strength and direction of party identification are facts of central importance in accounting for attitude and behavior.
The Michigan researchers were not the first to assert that many Americans have durable commitments to a political party. This idea had long been a staple of political commentary and was an important element in the work of such influential scholars as V.O. Key, Jr. But they were the first visible academic survey researchers to identify Republicans and Democrats in other than election-specific terms. Earlier researchers had assigned respondents to a party on the basis of their voting intentions in the impending presidential election. The Michigan contribution in this respect was an operational measure of partisan commitment that was consistent with the previous understanding of this concept, as represented in the work of scholars like Key.
If party identification were identical to vote choice, it would be an unnecessary term; if it were unrelated to vote choice, it would be without explanatory value.
Excerpted from The Myth of the Independent Voter by Bruce E. Keith David B. Magleby Candice J. Nelson Elizabeth A. Orr Mark C. Westlye Raymond E. Wolfinger Copyright © 1992 by Bruce E. Keith, David B. Magleby, Candice J. Nelson, Elizabeth A. Orr, Mark C. Westlye, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. Excerpted by permission.
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