The latest numbers:
A record 42% of people consider themselves Independent, compared to Democrat (31%) or Republican (25%). That’s a huge shift from just a decade ago, when affiliations were divided around a third for each. The chart below shows how Americans’ dissatisfaction with the parties is nothing new. (Note the surge in independents around the time of Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.) The spike in Independents is eating more into the GOP, which has seen party moderates sidelined by extremists. The data suggest that there may be a place for a Bloomberg presidential bid after all.
Alan Abramowitz disagrees with that final sentence:
Despite Gallup’s findings, you won’t see a large number of successful independent candidates next November, nor will many Democratic or Republican candidates distance themselves from their own party on major issues. That’s because, despite the apparent rise in independent identification, Americans are actually becoming more rather than less partisan in their behavior. Yes, even “independents.”
What I see is a bunch of formerly Republican voters/leaners being too embarrassed to admit it any more. Sides digs into the data:
Most self-described “independents” do lean toward a party. This other graph by Gallup is really the more important one:
Why is it more important? Because independents who lean toward a party — or “independent leaners” — behave like partisans, on average. They tend to be loyal to their party’s candidate in elections. They tend to have favorable views of many political figures in their party. They are not much more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. To be sure, independent leaners are not as partisan as the strongest partisans. But they resemble weaker partisans much more than they do real independents. In actuality, real independents make up just over 10 percent of Americans, and a small fraction of Americans who actually vote.
Matt Welch has a different perspective:
[A]s Nick Gillespie and I argue in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America (a distillation of which you can read in the August 2011 issue of Reason), the economy/society-wide loss of brand loyalty and gain of individualized, tech-fueled disruption will hit politics and especially governance last, because of government’s guaranteed revenue streams and party-rigged insulation from competition. But just because it will happen last, doesn’t mean it isn’t already beginning to happen.
Finally, Drum thinks the poll “goes a long way toward explaining that Pew survey last week, which found that belief in evolution had plummeted from 54 percent to 43 percent among Republicans over the past four years”:
If you dig into the details of that poll, the decline is actually a little more moderate than it seems, and it’s probably explained mostly by the fact that so many moderate Republicans have left the party. When you remove a big chunk of people who believe in evolution, the group that’s left will have a higher percentage of deniers even though no one’s beliefs have actually changed.