In March, we wrote two roundups that had to do with the different factions within the Democratic and Republican parties. However, these do not present a full picture, as only 31% of the public considers themselves Democrats, while 26% consider themselves Republican. This leaves 43% of the population unaccounted for. This group consists of independents, other parties, and people who do not know. This article will focus primarily on independent voters at 38% of the public, but will also mention elected officials, and third-parties running in presidential races.|
A recent study by Pew Research suggests that many independents are not as independent as they seem. Of the 38% of the public that identifies as politically independent, 81% have a partisan “lean,” which leaves only about seven percent of the public as true independents. These true independents tend to not be as politically involved as their more partisan counterparts, making them a difficult group to pander towards. Seventeen percent of the public, or about 45% of independents lean Democrat, while 13% of the public, or about 34% of independents lean Republican. On the whole, the independents that lean toward either party are in general agreement with that party, with a few exceptions.
The primary difference is essentially the strength of conviction—as previously mentioned, leaners tend to agree with the party they lean towards, however, they usually believe those issues less strongly. An example cited by Pew Research is that individuals that lean Republican are less supportive of Donald Trump than those that firmly identify as Republican. Nonetheless, approximately 70% of those who lean Republican approved of Trump’s job performance in his first two years in office. On the other hand, people who lean Democratic “overwhelmingly disapprove” of the President, just like their Democratic counterparts. Leaners also tend to vote at lower rates than those that affiliate with a party. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats voted in their congressional elections, while only 48% of Democratic-leaning independents voted. On the Republican side, turnout was a little higher, with 61% of Republicans voting and 54% of Republican-leaning independents voting.
There are a few independents who have been elected into public office, however, they tend to be few and far between because they generally do not have the infrastructure in place to run a successful campaign if they are not affiliated with a party. Either way, independents tend to caucus with a certain party. For example, the most prominent independent in national public office is Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), who caucuses with the Democrats. Sanders has run as an Independent since 1979. However, during his presidential runs, he has changed his party affiliation to Democrat. In fact, Sanders has registered as a Democrat for his 2020 presidential campaign, but has also registered as running as an Independent in the 2024 Senate race. The only other Independent Senator currently serving is Senator Angus S. King, Jr. (ME), who also caucuses with the Democrats.
Other than Senator Sanders and Senator King, there aren’t any other current high-profile Independents in national offices. There were a number of third-party candidates that ran in the 2016 presidential election, but there were only three that received any significant percentage of the vote, and they totaled less than 5% of the vote. Evan McMullin ran as an Independent, and only received 0.53% of the vote nationwide, though he received 21.5% of the vote in his home state of Utah. Gary Johnson, a former Republican, ran as a Libertarian and received 3.27% of the votes, while Jill Stein of the Green Party received 1.06% of the vote.
Overall, this information indicates that while not everyone defines themselves as a Democrat or Republican, in our current two-party system, there is value to it, especially if one is running for national office. For independent voters, there is not much of a pull to affiliate with a certain party, though they may become disenfranchised in the primary process in some states if they do not. On a candidate level, however, the only real way to be successful in a campaign for a national office is to either affiliate with a party, or have a strong network of supporters in place in your state, the smaller the better. For example, Vermont, Sanders’ home state, is the second smallest in the nation at population 623,960, and Maine is ninth smallest at a little over 1.3 million.
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