Several people have already commented on a new Gallup poll showing that Democrats and Republicans are continuing to lose ground to self-identified independents. And it’s true: the percentage of independents has risen steadily since 2008 from 35 percent to 43 percent.
But my advice is to ignore the noise. As Gallup itself says, “Although independents claim no outright allegiance to either major party, it is well-known that they are not necessarily neutral when it comes to politics.” Quite so. In fact, “leaners” tend to vote the party line just about as loyally as folks still willing to explicitly call themselves Democrats and Republicans. For most people, identifying as an independent isn’t so much a genuine political commitment as it is a lifestyle statement.
So here’s the chart to look at: Party ID plus the leaners. And the story it tells is fairly unremarkable. You can see spikes up and down as elections are held and the public gets tired of the party in power, but there’s not much of a long-term trend. I eyeballed the average party ID for both Democrats and Republicans in the Gallup chart, and it shows very little movement over the past few years: Democrats are down slightly from their long-term average—probably not surprising in the sixth year of a presidency—and Republicans have gained slightly.
If there’s a story to tell here, I don’t really see it. Perhaps pundits with sharper eyes and more column inches to fill will find something.