Being an independent is all the rage right now. But it doesn't mean the two major parties are in trouble. Not by a long shot.
New data from Gallup released Wednesday show that 42 percent of Americans, on average, identified as political independents in 2013. It's the highest percentage Gallup has recorded since it started calling the public to gauge their opinions.
As the following chart shows, as independents gained steam during the last year, the percentage of the public identifying as Republicans declined to its lowest point in 25 years.
One way of reading it all is this: Republicans should be worried about supporters abandoning them. And with the rising power of independents, the prospect of a serious national third-party movement is very real.
But that would be a misread. Why? Let's start with a simple reality of independent voters: Most of them have partisan orientations.
While many Americans like to describe themselves as independent voters -- especially at a time when neither major party is particularly popular -- when push comes to shove, independents largely remain loyal to one side or the other.
A 2012 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that more than six in 10 (63 percent) independents behaved as "disguised" Democrats or Republicans; a quarter were "detached," and only 13 percent fit the mold of true "deliberators."
Our colleague John Sides over at The Monkey Cage blog has done some good work explaining this visually. Back in 2009, Sides took a look at the American National Election Study. The study showed a rise in independents akin to what we see in the new Gallup data.
When asked follow-up questions, most independents acknowledged leaning toward one party or the other. In fact, the percentage of pure independents -- those with no stated leanings -- was quite small. Like 10 percent small. Here's a chart from Sides illustrating this:
Partisan leanings are very influential when voters choose which candidates to support. In the final Washington Post-ABC News 2012 pre-election poll (President Obama led Mitt Romney 50 percent to 47 percent), Obama won 84 percent of independents who lean Democratic and Romney won 89 percent of Republican-leaning independents. That level of loyalty was only 5-6 percentage points lower than among actual partisans.
So the idea that a genuine third-party movement spurred by frustration with the two major parties is going to take shape simply isn't reflected by the numbers. And for proof of the difficulty those advocating such a movement would face, look at Americans Elect's robust but ultimately failed effort to draft a third-party White House contender in 2012.
What about the question of what the growth of of independents means for Republicans, whose ranks are dwindling, as the Gallup data show? It's bad news, right?
The reality is that Republicans have performed well among independents when the stakes have been high. But it hasn't been enough -- suggesting that their problem is not with independents but with something else (more on that below).
Just ask 2013 Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who won independents but lost the election. Or Romney in 2012, who carried independents or those identifying as something other than a Democrat or a Republican by five points over Obama. And we know how that story ended.
What both Cuccinelli and Romney also have in common is their poor performance among moderates -- a group of voters which often gets confused with independents. Romney lost moderates by 15 points; Cuccinelli lost them by more than 18.
In short, today's GOP has a problems with moderates, not independents.
And at the end of the day, independent voters are, well, not all that independent. So don't count on the headquarters of the Democratic or Republican national committees shutting down any time soon.
Scott Clement contributed to this story.