The share of independents in the United States stands at its highest point in more than 75 years of public opinion polling. However, a substantial majority of independents have not fully declared their independence from the two major parties. Most say they “lean” toward a party. As we found in our recent study on political animosity, partisan leaners don’t have especially positive views of the party they lean toward, yet they feel very negatively about the opposing party. Nevertheless, partisan leaners share many of the political values of – and tend to vote similarly to – members of party they lean toward.
Here are five facts about political independents.
1Independents outnumber either Democrats or Republicans. A Pew Research Center analysis that examined partisan affiliation from 1992 to 2014 found that, in 2014, 39% of the public identified as independents, which was larger than the shares calling themselves Democrats (32%) or Republicans (23%). In 2004, roughly equal shares identified as Democrats (33%), independents (30%) and Republicans (29%).
However, most independents express a partisan leaning: In 2014, 17% of the public leaned toward the Democratic Party while 16% leaned toward the GOP; just 6% declined to lean toward a party. When the partisan leanings of independents were taken into account, 48% either identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic; 39% identified as Republicans or leaned Republican.
2The most frequently cited factor for leaning toward a party is the harm caused by the opposing party’s policies. A majority of Republican leaners (55%) and roughly half of Democratic leaners (51%) cite the other party’s policies being bad for the country as a major reason why they lean toward their own party. By contrast, just 30% of Republican leaners and 34% of Democratic leaners say that their own party’s policies being good for the country is a major reason why they lean toward their party.
Why do Republican leaners choose not to identify as Republicans? About half (52%) say a major reason they do not affiliate with the party is their frustration with its leaders; 40% say it is because they disagree with the party on important issues.
Among Democratic leaners, no single reason stands out. A third say a major reason they do not identify as Democrats is that they disagree with the party on key issues, while 28% cite frustration with the party’s leadership.
3Independents who lean toward a party do not feel very warmly toward its members. When asked to rate Republicans and Democrats on a 0 to 100 “feeling thermometer” – where 0 is the coldest, most negative rating and 100 is the warmest, most positive rating – partisan-leaning independents are not very warm toward members of their own party. Fewer than half of Democratic leaners (45%) give a warm rating (more than 50) to Democrats; even fewer Republican leaners (38%) feel warmly toward Republicans.
Not surprisingly, majorities of partisans give warm ratings to their fellow partisans. Three-quarters of Democrats (75%) and two-thirds of Republicans (67%) give warm ratings to the members of their party.
But partisans and leaners are more in sync in views of those in the opposing party. Comparable majorities of both Democrats (61%) and Democratic leaners (55%) give Republicans cold ratings on the thermometer. About seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) and 57% of Republican leaners rate Democrats coldly.
4Partisan animosity has increased sharply among independents as well as partisans. For the first time in surveys dating back more than two decades, majorities of Republicans (58%) and Democrats (55%) say they have a very unfavorable view of the opposing party. In 1994, fewer than half as many Republicans (21%) and Democrats (17%) expressed highly negative views of the other party.
But the rise in partisan animosity has not been limited to partisans. Intense dislike of the opposing party has risen sharply among independents and others who lean toward a party. Today, 44% of Republican and Democratic leaners say they have a very unfavorable impression of the opposing party, up from just 10% and 11% respectively in 1994.
5Increasing shares of independents and partisans express ideological views on major issues. Pew Research Center’s major study of political polarization in 2014 found a rise in ideological attitudes among both Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades. The same trend is evident among independents who lean toward one party or the other.
In 2015, 59% of Republicans – and 45% of Republican-leaning independents – expressed consistently conservative or mostly conservative attitudes across a series of 10 questions on political values that Pew Research Center has been asking since 1994. In 2004, just 35% of Republicans, and 24% of GOP leaners, had at least mostly conservative opinions on these issues, which include the environment, the role of government, national security and social issues.
The positions of those who identify as Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party are similar over this time period: In 2015, 62% of Democrats and 56% of Democratic leaners were consistently or mostly liberal. When the two groups diverged in 2004, Democratic leaners (58%) were actually somewhat more likely than Democrats (46%) to be to the left of center.