The Washington Post

Oh, those independents

The Pew Political Typology numbers are out today, and they’re always interesting; as Mark Blumenthal says, the Pew categories are “useful in understanding the undercurrents of opinion at work beneath the current party ID or vote preference numbers.”

But careful: The implication from the top-line numbers that independents are over a third of the electorate isn’t matched by the way people actually behave.

Here’s the shortcut you need. If you ask people for their party affiliation, it turns out that more or less than one-third will say Democrat, one-third Republican and one-third independent. But if you look carefully at that ”independent” third, you’ll find that one-third of them consistently act as if they were Democrats, one-third as if they were Republicans and only the remaining one-third — that is, one-ninth of the electorate — actually acts like true independents. For the non-shortcut version, see this (and many other) posts from John Sides. The specific numbers jump around over time, but if you just remember the thirds/thirds method, you’ll be fine.

For whatever reasons, the United States right now has strong, healthy political parties but a political culture that treats those parties as corrupt, anti-democratic scum. It’s no wonder that a large number of partisans don’t like to think of themselves that way. But nonetheless, that’s what’s really going on.


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