Independents or Partisan Leaners

According to a recent Gallup survey, the share of U.S. adults that identify as Independents has climbed notably over the past decade.  Nearly 40 years ago, an era when many complained there was not a dimes worth of differences between the parties, about one-third of Americans identified as Democrat, Republican, and Independent. 

Today, 44% say they are Independents, while the share of Democrats and Republicans has dropped to 30% and 25% respectively.     

The percentage of Independents ranks among the highest recorded, with only 2013 higher at 46%. 

An increase?

Many claim there is in fact no increase.  Rather, most Independents are actually partisan “leaners”.  People may say they are Independent, but really, they favor one party and behave just like partisans. 


Typically, after people identify as Independents researchers pose another question:

“As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?”

Republican leaners are approximately 11% and Democrat leaners 13%.  The remaining 20% are so-called “pure Independents” having claimed no partisan leaning.

I wonder what the percentages would look like if researchers asked Democrats and Republicans if they truly were partisans or whether they leaned independent?   

In any event, classifying leaners as partisans (adding them to the ranks of Democrat or Republican parties) creates considerable confusion about the actual number of Independents, Democrats, and Republicans. The Gallup chart shows Independents are the most popular identification – by a considerable margin. 

However, reclassifying leaners as partisans, Democrats become the popular choice, then Republicans, and the share of Independents drops by more than half.   This of course presents a much different picture of partisan identification.   

Party ID

From Gallup Chart

Reclassify Leaners










Vegetarians and Carnivores   

If I claim to be neutral, Independent, and dislike the alternatives presented, but then on Election Day must choose one of them, does that mean I should be labeled by my choice and not by my preference? 

Many people, for example, say they are vegetarians but will eat meat when it’s the only item on the menu.   Does that mean they are carnivores?  Or rather, that they lean carnivore?       

Like vegetarians at a steak house, Independents typically have few choices.  The two parties dominate, and Independents must choose one or the other. 

Independents, leaners, partisans

The table below is often used by researchers to demonstrate the strong relationship between partisans and Independent leaners.    

Independents that lean Republican or Democrat vote much in the same way as partisan Republicans and Democrats.  For example, 80% of Republicans voted for Trump while only 4% voted for Biden.  Similarly, 65% of Independents that lean Republican voted for Trump and 4% voted for Biden.   Leaning Democrats and partisan Democrats exhibit a similar relationship.  Pure Independents, however, are split more evenly across candidates.       

It thus seems reasonable to fold leaning Independents into the partisan group.    

Party IDVote TrumpVote BidenSomeone elseNo Vote
Lean Republican6542110
Lean Democrat856287
source:  MU Law Polls national sample – 2023  

Nevertheless, the data can be interpreted another way.  Republicans and Democrats that lean are notably less likely than partisans to vote for the party candidate.  The gap between leaners and partisans is considerable, 15% for Republicans (80% – 65%) and 23% for Democrats (79%-56%). 

Leaners are clearly not as committed or loyal as partisans – that’s why they are called Independent leaners.  While they may not switch their vote choices, Independent leaners may not vote at all, or they may vote for a candidate that does not represent either party.   

By reclassifying Independent leaners as partisans, researchers present an excessively partisan portrait of reality. 

The Rise of Independents

Looking at the Gallup graph, the headline should read, The Rise of Independents.  The party establishment will of course disagree and claim that most Independents are merely partisans concealing their true identities. 

But the headline is accurate, and it is important.  It forces us to consider why Independents are surging and have been for some time.  The conclusion seems evident; widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the two political parties.           

2 thoughts on “Independents or Partisan Leaners

  1. Most coverage details American politics as partisan and extremely polarized, so it’s interesting to see a significant portion of voters consider themselves independent. But, maybe it’s a not so surprising reaction of the people to something they are dissatisfied in. Based on the trends in the Gallup figure, independents may rise to 50% by late 2020s. Do you anticipate either party (or more broadly, politicians in general) modifying their stances to capture this potentially rising segment of voters?


    1. Hi Nick, thanks for the question: Yes, if the trend line extended on its present trajectory, Independents would become a majority. I would consider that a positive development. However, the two parties are strong and Independents represent a threat to their power. The duopoly will persist and much more than a growing number of Independents is required to defeat it.

      Politicians typically respond to the most engaged citizens, those that contribute to campaigns, actively participate in primary elections, and lobby at statehouses across the country. The Gallup figure showing the rise of Independents is a cross section of all citizens. If we sampled engaged citizens only, the distribution would change considerably and favor strong partisans – both sides. A few current politicians occupy the center – for example, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, etc, but notice the national coverage of them is typically negative – especially if they the president. Years ago, at the beginning of that Gallup time series, Independents – centrists were regarded more positively – regarded as politicians that get things done, etc. The polarization you referred too diminishes the centrists’ (Independent) tendencies of elected officials. Party loyalty trumps achievement (legislative success).

      Yet, ironically, polarization may begin to weaken the parties – as suggested with the increase of Independents. One last thing: presidential contests are won by appealing to Independents and centrists. This has been true in the past and is true today. Bush won among Independents, so did Obama, as did Trump, and now Biden. They are a crucial voting bloc. But we hear little about them because views, clicks, and subscribers are partisan – strong partisans and that’s the market that pays.


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