To hear potential 2020 candidate Howard Schultz tell it, he’s embracing the political will of the majority of Americans. Most Americans are in the center, he said in a speech Wednesday, right where he claims to be.
That’s not really true, at least in the sense of partisan identity. While the largest political group in the country is self-described independents, poll after poll shows that most of those independents end up mostly aligning with one party or the other.
Pew Research Center published an expansive look at political independents Thursday, and it’s hard not to come to a simple conclusion: Independents are, for the most part, partisans who are disillusioned with the two major parties.
In Pew’s assessment, 38 percent of Americans are independents — but only 7 percent are independents who don’t lean toward one party or the other. That’s been fairly constant over the past two decades.
What’s more, those “true” independents, if you will, are less politically engaged than partisans or than independents who lean toward one party or the other. Pew’s data suggests that only about 6 in 10 “true” independents are registered to vote, about the same percentage as those independents who lean Democratic. But nearly half of those Democratic leaners voted in 2018, compared with a third of the independents who don’t lean toward a party.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Pew’s research is the data showing how closely independent leaners generally mirror the members of the parties to which they lean. Most Republican-leaning independents identify as conservative, for example — more than identify as moderate. As Democrats have increasingly identified as liberal, so have Democrat-leaning independents, though more of that group identify as moderate than liberal, which isn’t true among Democrats.
Notice, though, that Republican-leaning independents are much less conservative than Republicans themselves, by a 21 point margin. The gap between Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents on identifying as liberal is only eight points. In both cases, the leaners are more moderate than the members of the parties to which they lean, Republican leaners by 17 points and Democratic leaners by eight points.
That probably influences the gap that exists between Republicans and Republican-leaning independents on a variety of issues included in Pew’s poll.
On average, Republican-leaning independents are 10 points less likely to take the conservative position across these 11 issues than self-identified Republicans. The gap between Democrats and Democratic leaners is only about a point. When considering the liberal side of each of these questions — oppose the border wall, favor marijuana legalization, etc. — the gaps are similar.
That space between Republican-leaning independents and Republicans probably overlaps with the gap between the two groups in views of President Trump. Pew’s data show a 15 point gap between the groups in approval of Trump. For both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, independents who leaned with the president’s party were substantially less enthusiastic about their presidencies than members of their own parties.
So why aren’t these leaning independents just members of the political parties? Well, consider that most people don’t really have a lot of confidence in either party. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll released last year showed that only 36 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Democratic Party and only 29 percent felt that positively about the Republicans. In Pew’s poll, about a quarter of those who said that they leaned toward one party or the other also said that they viewed both parties unfavorably. The implication is that parties have driven some voters away.
Interestingly, most leaners only see the party to which they don’t lean negatively. As negative partisan views have increased over time, that’s happened among leaning independents, as well.
Notice that, while Republican-leaning independents view the Republican Party more negatively than Republicans, their views of the party also have improved in the Trump era.
There’s another way to look at what Pew outlines. There are, in essence, strong and weak Democrats, strong and weak Republicans and “true” independents who are less likely to actually vote. That way of looking at American politics shows why potential candidates such as Schultz have a tougher climb than they might presume.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.