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National Politics|By Amy Walter, January 15, 2014

For years, conventional wisdom has held that as independent voters go, so goes an election. Win these coveted swing voters - the moderate middle - and you win the election. Recent high profile elections, however, have undermined this long-held aphorism.  Romney carried independent voters and lost both the popular vote and the electoral college. In Virginia, a quintessential swing state, Republican Ken Cuccinelli carried independents by double-digits and still lost the 2013 gubernatorial election.

So, are independent voters no longer so independent? Or have we been mislabeling them all along?

Last week, Gallup released polling that showed a whopping 42 percent of Americans identified themselves as independent - the highest percentage ever recorded by the polling institution.

In the wake of  seemingly endless stories of political scandals (government shut-down, Healthcare.gov, Anthony Weiner), voters are understandably reticent about attaching themselves to a political party.

However, the 42 percent is also something of a misleading number. More than 75 percent of those who label themselves as independent also say they "lean" toward one party or the other. Sixteen percent each to the Democrat and Republican Party. "All told, then, 47% of Americans identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, and 41% identify as Republicans or lean to the Republican Party." Just 10 percent of Americans can be identified as "pure independents."

However, it's also true, that as Gallup writes,  "Americans' increasing shift to independent status has come more at the expense of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party." The percentage labeling themselves as Republican fell to 25 percent in this most recent Gallup survey - just one point higher than the all-time low for GOP of 24 percent in 1983.  Even so, those voters who no longer identify as Republicans aren't calling themselves Democrats either. The 31 percent of Americans "identifying as Democrats matches the lowest annual average in the last 25 years."

In other words, these one-time GOP-identified voters are now identifying themselves as independents. This is what helps to explain how Republicans can win the independent vote and still lose an election.

More important, however, is the misconception that these voters are embracing an "independent " status because they want their party to pursue a more moderate agenda,  or to  move to the middle instead of catering to the extreme.  In fact, there is evidence that they are abandoning their party labels for the exact opposite reason: they see the party as moving too far from its core values.

A recent paper for the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy by Kimberley Norman and Zachary Zundel, found that "the majority of Independent voters have political opinions that align with one of the two major parties at least as well as party members."  In fact, they write, "independents who "leaned" toward one party or the other actually had stronger alignment than those who identified as "not very strong" in the same party. Additionally, their results were far more similar with those who identified themselves as being "strong" in their party."

In other words, those who call themselves "independent" may actually be closer to the views of the core GOP or core Democratic policy positions than even those who identify themselves as a party member.

Using the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study as their source of public opinion, the authors of the study compared the opinions of 55,400 Americans (34 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican, 30 percent independent) with the official party positions of the Democratic and Republican party platforms of 2012.  They broke the 23  policy issue questions into roughly equal buckets of economic and social issues.The further an individual deviated from the "official party" position, the higher their score. For example, a Democrat who believed that "by law, abortion should never be permitted" got a score of two. One who said that "the law should permit abortion only in case of rape or incest or when the woman's life is in danger" got a score of one.  The Democrat who believed a "woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice" was give a score of zero.

On average, those who identified as an independent who "leaned" toward one party or the other, had lower deviation scores (i.e. were more closely aligned with core positions of the party) than those who were  not as strongly identified with the party.

Among Democrats, those who said they were "strong Democrats" had an average score of 7.97. Those who said they were independent with a "lean" to Democrats had an average score of 7.73. But, those who said they were "not very strong" Democrat had a higher average score of 9.46.

The Republican gap looks similar, with "strong Republican" averaging 5.95 and independent, "lean" Republican at 6.63. Meanwhile, those who identified themselves as "not very strong Republican" had an average score of 8.58.  

This suggests that voters are not abandoning their party labels because the party has become too extreme in its policy positions. Instead, many may be leaving because they see the party as getting too moderate or insufficiently aligned with its core values. Plenty of "not strong" GOPers believe the party needs to change its position on gay marriage. Yet many of those who say they are independent are actually Republicans who are committed to keeping the GOP platform anti-gay marriage.

Meanwhile, among those who are truly independent (don't lean to either party) the study found that where they diverge from both parties the most is on social issues.

What this means for those of us who work in politics is that we can't simply use independent as a short-cut. These voters may be better aligned with strong partisans than they are with those who are not as committed to their party label.