Social Policy & Politics Program | Memo

Leaners Don’t Fall: The Myth of the Myth of the Independent Voter

by Michelle Diggles, Ph. D and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky

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New findings based on unique data reveal that Independents are distinct even from those who say they weakly identify with the Republican or Democratic parties. While analysts have often looked at Independents who lean one way or the other in a single election and concluded they are simply “closet” partisans, in reality, those who label themselves Independent are much more likely to switch parties—and their votes—over time, from election to election.

This memo explains that while some Independents may lean toward a certain party and vote for that party’s candidate in that same electoral cycle, when you follow the same people across multiple elections, a very different pattern emerges: these leaners don’t fall with their partisan friends.

In this memo we:

  1. Define partisans and Independents;
  2. Show that Independents who lean towards one party or another are more likely to defect from that party than partisans; and,
  3. Demonstrate that Independents are actual swing voters.

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