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The Independent Voter: Not So Middle-of-the-Road After All

December 8, 2012

by Carlee Beth Hawkins, University of VirginiaIndie

Voters sometimes cross party lines, but not very often:  In U.S. elections, for example, people who label themselves Democrats usually vote for the Democratic candidate and Republicans vote Republican. The recent 2012 election  illustrated the power of political affiliation: the Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney won Wyoming, where Republicans far outnumber Democrats, but President Obama won in places like Vermont, where Democrats are more plentiful than Republicans.

Given the salience and influence of partisanship in the United States, the following fact might surprise some Americans: Democrats and Republicans are the minority in the U.S. According to the 2008 American National Election Studies, the majority of Americans identify as politically Independent. Political independence implies objectivity in political decision making, and a seemingly noble ability to resist partisan influence. Given how influential party membership can be, how do Independents avoid the strong arm of partisan influence? This is the question my collaborator Brian Nosek (http://projectimplicit.net/nosek/) and I sought to understand, the results of which have recently been published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Political scientists have a long history of empirical investigation of political independence, and this research has revealed that most Independents, when pressed, will admit that they lean toward the Democratic or Republicans parties, and this ‘leaning’ party membership predicts their voting patterns quite well (Keith et al., 1992). Independents who lean toward the Democratic Party behave similarly to Democrats and Independents who lean toward the Republican Party behave similarly to Republicans. However, a full third of Independents, who are termed ‘Pure’ Independents, do not report leaning toward either party – even when pressed, they maintain their Independent identity.

Recent social psychological research utilizing implicit measurement, which uses reaction time to gauge the strength of associations between concepts in the mind without requiring direct report of these associations, has shown that undecided voters demonstrate implicit preferences for candidates or political parties. Even though these undecided voters are unable – or unwilling – to report their explicit political preferences, these implicit measures reveal a preference that predicts their later voting patterns (e.g., Arcuri, Castelli, Galdi, Zogmaister, & Amadori, 2008).

Given this evidence from political science and social psychology, we wondered whether Independents might implicitly identify with Democrats or Republicans, even if they aren’t willing or able to report that they lean toward either party. On our virtual laboratory Project Implicit (https://implicit.harvard.edu/), we administered a political party Implicit Association Test, which required participants to quickly sort words representing ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ and words representing ‘Self’ and ‘Other.’ Participants who sort ‘Democrats’ with ‘Self’ faster than they sort ‘Republicans’ with ‘Self’ are termed ‘implicitly Democratic,’ whereas participants who sort ‘Republicans’ and ‘Self’ faster are termed ‘implicitly Republican.’ Independents were distributed across the spectrum – some implicitly identified as Democratic, some as Republican, and some showed no differences in implicit self-association between the parties.

Demonstrating that Independents implicitly identify as Democratic or Republican when they do not report this information is of value to basic science. It illustrates that people may have group allegiances with related preferences and beliefs that they either do not know they have, or are not readily willing to admit that they have. However, the real interesting – and practical – question is whether these implicit identities predict actual political decisions. To test this, we had participants read about two welfare policies – one stringent and one generous – and manipulated what party proposed what policy (Cohen, 2003). Half the participants saw Democrats propose the generous policy and Republicans propose the stringent policy, and the other half saw Democrats propose the stringent policy and Republicans propose the generous policy. Partisans preferred the policy that was proposed by their party, and for the most part, Independents resembled partisans – Independents who demonstrated implicit Democratic identities liked the plan proposed by Democrats and Independents who demonstrated implicit Republican identities liked the plan proposed by Republicans. Though Independents report nonpartisan political identities, many demonstrate implicit party identities, and these predict their political judgments along party lines.

Given that many Independents seem to fall into the Democratic or Republican camp and are influenced by these party inclinations, why identify as Independent? To find out, we simply asked. We formulated a list of 35 reasons why someone might identify as Independent, and asked Independents who visited Project Implicit how much they agreed with each reason. The most commonly endorsed reasons centered around a theme of self-objectivity, and included items such as “I prefer to think for myself rather than feel like I need to support a party line” and “I say ‘independent’ because I come to my political positions by thinking objectively.” From this, we gather that Independents may choose these political identities because they think of themselves as objective political decision makers, or perhaps want to think of themselves in this way. However, their implicit party identities and party-influenced political judgments tell a different story. In politics, as in so many areas of our lives, who we are and who we say we are is not necessarily the same thing.


Author Information

hawkinsCarlee Beth Hawkins (http://people.virginia.edu/~cbh2z/) is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. She is also a researcher with Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory for research and education of implicit cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness or control. Carlee’s research interests concern motivations and strategies for overcoming bias, and their impact on social identification and non-identification, and social and political judgment and behavior.


References

The American National Election Studies Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior. (2010).  Party identification 7-point scale 1952-2004. Stanford University and the University of Michigan [producers and distributors]. Available from http://www.electionstudies.org

Arcuri, L., Castelli, L., Galdi, S., Zogmaister, C., & Amadori, A. (2008). Predicting the vote: Implicit attitudes as predictors of the future behavior of decided and undecided voters. Political Psychology, 29, 369-387.

Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 808-822.

Keith, B. E., Magleby, D. B., Nelson, C. J., Orr, E., Westlye, M. C., & Wolfinger, R. E. (1992). The myth of the independent voter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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