Politico.com had disheartening news for Democrats on July 9. "Independents edge away from Obama," declared the Web site's top story, which noted a Virginia poll in which independent voters in the state disapproved of the president's job performance by 52 to 38 percent.
The piece called this "a potentially alarming trend for the White House," a statement which reflects the importance political journalists place on the views of independents. Their shifts in opinion are carefully monitored in the media and often treated as a bellwether, signaling which way the electorate is leaning.
The result is a distorted picture of the nation's political makeup, according to political scientist John Petrocik of the University of Missouri. In an analysis just published in the journal Electoral Studies, he argues that the definition of independent voters used by many pollsters is far too broad.
Americans, he noted, "prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and inclined to judge candidates on their individual merit." But, he finds, "Very few Americans lack a party preference."
Although an increasing number of Americans are calling themselves independents, Petrocik argues this is "more a matter of self-presentation than an accurate statement about our approach to elections, candidates, the parties and politics in general."
So why do so many fixate on what is, in many ways, a phantom population? Perhaps it's because of the widely held misconceptions regarding what the term "independent voter" truly means.
In the public imagination, independents are a relatively stable demographic made up of engaged but unaffiliated people who can be persuaded one way or another. They are thought of, essentially, as swing voters. No doubt much of the fascination with how independents are thinking is based on that premise.
Which, it turns out, is false.
"There are an awful lot of people who call themselves independent because it's fashionable in some circles," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But their voting behavior is predictable. They are not swing voters."
"While a disproportionate numbers of swing voters are independents, two-thirds of independent voters are not swing voters," added Tom Jensen, communications director of Public Policy Polling.
"This idea of the sage citizen who eschews party affiliation, is unbiased and persuadable by reason and facts, is very much a myth," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Most people are committed to a party.
"They may not like the label, so some call themselves independents. But there are very few people who fit the archetypes of the wise, centrist independent. People who don't have a lot of opinions tend to be disengaged from politics and less likely to vote."
There are two key facts in thinking about political independents. First, they comprise a self-defining group that shrinks and grows, sometimes dramatically, as the nation's political mood changes. If you compare how "independents" feel today as opposed to how they felt five or 10 years ago, you are not studying the same group of people.
Second, the precise makeup of this intensely scrutinized demographic is highly debatable. Given their prominence in the press, it is surprising that there is no agreed-upon definition of precisely who "independent voters" are. (There is also an American Independent Party and an America's Independent Party, both right-leaning. Neither ever appear to carry much electoral weight, although their registrations sometimes surge, in part, some theorize, because "independent" — i.e. nonpartisan or decline to state — voters identify themselves incorrectly with those third parties.)
In May, the Pew Center released a report stating that the percentage of Americans who define themselves as political independents — 36 percent — matches the 70-year high previously reached in 1992 (the year of Ross Perot's candidacy for president). However, that figure includes people who call themselves independent, but admit they lean Democrat or Republican when pressed by a pollster. Exclude them, and the number of true independents goes down to around 15 percent, according to Keeter.
In April 2009 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported 19 percent of Americans are "strictly independent," while another 23 percent call themselves independent but "lean" either Republican or Democratic. That poll found an almost equal number of "leaners" toward each party, while the Pew survey found a significantly higher percentage lean Democrat than Republican.
When it comes to voting, working in campaigns, giving donations or any other facet of political life, "leaners" behave identically with those who consider themselves a "weak" party member, according to Petrocik. He argues that placing them among independents is simply wrong; they should be included with other members of their party.
With that in mind, let's return to the Virginia poll highlighted by Politico, which was conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling. Who exactly are the independents who have turned against the president's policies?
"We have voters self-identify their party affiliation in all of our polls," explained Jensen. "So we ask them if they're Democrats, Republicans, or 'other' and if they say other we classify them as independents. We do not prod those who identify as independents on which way they lean. In Virginia, they comprise 33 percent of the electorate with 34 percent as Democrats and 33 percent as Republicans."
In other words, the "leaners" are in there. And in Virginia, they tend to lean to the right.
"In Virginia the demographic profile of independents is that 5 percent identify as liberals, 61 percent as moderates, and 35 percent as conservatives," Jensen said. "I think there is somewhat of a tendency for independents to skew in a conservative direction after the last four or five years because some Republicans unhappy with President Bush or congressional Republicans are now identifying as independents instead of Republicans, even if they maintain their conservative ideology."
That phenomenon has been widely noted in the press over the past few years. And yet, even with the knowledge that the makeup of the "independent" pool has grown to include more Republican-leaning voters, it is often treated as news when this group expresses opposition to Obama's policies.
So is the media overstating, or overdramatizing, some rather predictable results? Jensen suggested as much on a recent entry on the Public Policy Polling blog: "Our polls have pretty universally shown Barack Obama's approval rating dropping with independents lately, but when you take a look at who those voters are it seems almost inevitable."
Pew's Keeter agrees — up to a point.
"We're talking about a 3- to 6-point increase in the percentage of independents relative to a couple of years ago," he noted. "If you go from 30 percent a couple of years ago to an average of 36 percent now, you're up 6 points in independents and down 5 points in Republican affiliation.
"So you're only talking about 5 percent out of the total 36 percent of independents who are refugees from the Republican party who are possibly returning home because they're conservative ideologically and don't like what they see. If the swing (away from supporting Obama's policies) is bigger than that, it is reaching into the more neutral group of independents."
At least one major poll, the one by Quinnipiac University, does things the right way, from Petrocik's point of view. "If they say they are independents, we ask if they lean either way," said that poll's Brown. "If they say yes, we list them as a D or an R. If they say no, we list them as an independent."
So what do their numbers tell us? According to a Quinnipiac survey of Ohio residents released July 7, 38 percent of independents said they approved of Obama's policies, while 48 percent said they disapproved. That's a four-point difference in the disapproval number, which may reflect the fact Ohio and Virginia are two different states — and/or the fact leaners were excluded in the Ohio survey.
Fourteen percent of Ohio independents said they didn't know or otherwise didn't answer the question, which confirms that true independent voters are more likely to be disengaged from the political process. In contrast, only 3 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of Republicans failed to answer the question.
Why don't all pollsters restrict their surveys of independents to people who are genuinely unaffiliated with a party? Petrocik believes the problem is the small number of people in that category.
"Without the leaners, the base of independents could be as small as 150 respondents in the typical national sample of 1,000 or so that we read about," he said. "The sampling error of such a small number would be very large — 15 percentage points. It is hard to take a seven-point shift seriously if you are dealing with a 15 or more percentage point sampling error."
The pollsters defend their practice by arguing that the fact some partisans are unwilling to identify with their party is interesting information, even if it doesn't necessarily predict voting patterns.
"More often than not, we (include leaners in the independent category), although we know many of them are likely to consistently vote for one party or the other," said Keeter. "The fact they're unwilling to affiliate with a party is of some value, at least in telling you how popular the party's brand is.
"The declining number of Republicans, at the same time we don't see a rising number of Democrats, is valuable information. It tells us there is a departure from the Republican Party, or at least the willingness to publicly affiliate with it. But there is no comparable movement over to the Democratic side, which suggests the pull of their brand is not all that great."
Pew's Keeter and the University of Missouri's Petrocik agree on one thing: A major realignment of party affiliation is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future, in spite of Democrats' hopes of forging a new majority.
"There was a big surge toward the Republicans in 1981 following Carter's loss in the 1980 election, Democratic unpopularity at the time, and the [positive reaction] to Reagan," Petrocik noted. "[But] by the end of 1981, the balance of Republicans and Democrats had returned to the status quo ante.
"I don't think we are viewing a replay of 1933-34, when a new equilibrium emerged. It looks more like 1981 to me."
Keeter noted that the big Democratic coalition formed during the Depression included Southern Democrats. "They were conservative and at odds with the national Democratic Party but maintained their alignment with the party for a variety of reasons having to do with old loyalties," he said. "This held until the civil rights movement and the choice of the national Democratic leadership to take the party in a pro-civil rights direction. You then had the fracture, in which a lot of Southern Democrats moved away from the party, and eventually found a home in the Republican Party."
With that redoalignment complete, "We now have a more ideologically consistent set of divisions than we had back then," he said. That being the case, he doesn't see any basis for a major realignment.
For such a shift to occur, you'd need a lot of independent-minded, persuadable people, and neither Keeter nor Petrocik believe there are that many out there.
"The 'rise of the independent voter' is mostly a mirage," Petrocik said. "I confess that I helped to contribute to it with a book I collaborated on many years ago.
"The parties have lost a bit of their appeal to many of the least political among us," he added. "But this group of 'shy' partisans quickly display their underlying party attachments in many ways."
So to sum up: Most "independents," as pollsters and pundits commonly define the term, are in fact committed to one party or the other. Those that are truly unaffiliated tend to be less politically engaged, and are thus less likely to vote.
Sounds like a group not particularly worth keeping your eye on.
Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.
Follow us on Twitter.