Why people call themselves “independent” even when they aren’t

January 10

This is a guest post by political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klar.  An introduction to their research is here.

Earlier this week, Gallup announced that Americans are more politically independent than ever.  But, like most survey findings, the fact that 42 percent of Americans now identify as independent is not as straightforward as it initially seems. Indeed, as John Sides pointed out, most Americans who identify as independent often act in a partisan fashion, even if they are not as partisans as the true believers.

So why are people telling surveys they are independent when, in fact, they often behave in a fashion more similar to partisans than to true independents? And– aside from giving pundits a chance to proclaim that Americans are “declaring independence” – does this have any real consequences for politics?  We have spent the past year and a half trying to answer these very questions.

A key to understanding independents is media coverage of politics in Washington.  When people see politics in the news and entertainment media, they see partisan gridlock and disagreement. Partisans are portrayed as uncooperative, uncompromising and angry.

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party.  Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

In one of our first studies on the topic, we randomly assigned survey respondents to two groups. We instructed the first group to answer the question “what is your partisanship?” in a way that they believed would make the most positive impression on another person.  We instructed the second group to answer the very same question in a way that they believed would make the most negative impression on another person.

The results were striking: when asked to make a “positive impression” nearly 60 percent more people reported that they were independents, as compared to those who were asked to make a negative impression.

This belief that independence is more socially acceptable than partisanship is magnified by news coverage that highlights partisan disagreement. In another study we asked a representative sample of Americans to read one of three news stories. Among these stories was one about partisan disagreement in Washington. Reading a story about partisan disagreement increased people’s tendency to identify as independent by nearly 20 percentage points.

But the consequences of aspiring to independence go far beyond calling oneself “independent” in a poll.  In another study completed just two weeks ago, we again reminded respondents of partisan disagreement, and then asked them to rate photographs of two affluent neighborhoods.  Some respondents saw pictures of the neighborhoods without any political signs, and some saw these very same neighborhoods with just one small addition: a political campaign sign on one of the well-manicured lawns.

When people were reminded of partisan disagreement, they consistently rated the neighborhood with the political sign as being a less desirable place to live. In addition, more than 60 percent also reported that they would not even want to attend an event with people who lived in that neighborhood.

In a similar study, we showed people photographs of strangers. We told some of our participants that the strangers were Independents, and we told others that the strangers were partisans. We found that when people were reminded of partisan disagreement, they rated photographs of Independents as being more attractive than photographs of partisans – even when, by objective standards, the partisans were actually more attractive.

But does this social preference for independence have any political consequences? It does.

More than simply down-rating neighborhoods, or judging independents as more attractive, exposure to partisan disagreement leaves Americans distinctly less likely to take political actions that they believe may be perceived as partisan, as well as less likely to reveal their partisanship in social settings. And the level of disagreement necessary to make this happen is no greater than what  Americans see nearly every day when they turn on the television, visit a news Web site, or even talk to a friend.

We find that stories of partisan disagreement diminish people’s willingness to discuss partisan politics with others or to participate in other overtly partisan actions.  Even more importantly, the more people care about what others think of them, the more likely that people will shy away from behaving in a way that makes them appear partisan.

This just a portion of our findings regarding the extent to which people prefer “independence” – but equally important is what we don’t find.  What we don’t find is any change in people’s actual political views. Even while reporting that they are independent, respondents repeatedly clung to the partisan issue positions they had held all along. Indeed, when we asked people to place themselves on either the Republican or Democratic side of a series of issues, they were not only consistent in which side they picked across all the issues, but reminding them of partisan disagreement had no effect.

We, of course, cannot speak for every individual who identifies as independent. Certainly, there are many people who may be truly independent from either party and who may behave in the ways we might expect true independents to behave.  But our work points to the idea that “independent” has become a socially desirable label – one that conveys a sense of rising above the political pettiness in American politics.  And even as more and more people call themselves “independent,”  it is difficult to argue that they are actually moving away from their underlying partisan identities.

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