The Pew Research Center is out with its new study of political party affiliation in America, and the big takeaway is this: There are more self-described independents than ever before.
The 39 percent who claim this label has risen sharply since the George W. Bush years and, for the first time really, it outranks both the Democratic and Republican labels by a country mile. That's especially notable, considering back in the Truman administration, the number of independents was less than half what it is today.
Here's a cool interactive, dating back to the Great Depression, from Pew:
Which is all well and good -- except that it's also highly misleading. While a record number of Americans claim the independent label, fewer and fewer Americans are truly independent in their voting habits. The number of swing voters keeps shrinking, and the vast majority of "independents" vote almost exclusively for one side or another.
Here's what we wrote on this a couple months back, when a Gallup poll also showed a record number of independents (43 percent!):
What we have here isn't so much a rise in political independence as much as a rise in the desire to be labeled "independent." Indeed, almost every indicator shows that the American people are actually becoming more polarized, more electorally predictable, and less swing-y -- i.e. less independent.
Witness these two polls.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in July 2012 -- more than three months before that year's presidential election -- showed just 6 percent of Americans said there was a "good chance" they would change their mind about their candidate of choice. That number was 10 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004.
What's more, 19 percent said there was at least some chance they would change their mind (mandatory Dumb and Dumber link). That number was 25 percent in 2008 and 21 percent in 2004.
A Pew poll in 2012 showed a similar decline in genuinely persuadable voters. By April of that year, just 23 percent of people said they weren't certain voters for either Democrats or Republicans. That was down from 33 percent in 2008 but slightly higher than the 21 percent who said so in 2004. In the prior three presidential elections, that number was between 27 percent and 32 percent.
If 43 percent of Americans are truly independent, why are only half of them actually persuadable seven months before a presidential election? Sure, you can be a reliable Republican voter while not wanting to be a member of the party; but the point is that, for all intents and (electoral) purposes, and practically speaking, you are a Republican.
And then there's this visual, also from Pew, which shows the polarization of the American population.
So, yes, we do have more independents in America today, technically speaking. But we have fewer and fewer, practically speaking.