Political Science The Study of Independent Voters
Carlee Beth Hawkins, Colleen Moroney
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0338


More Americans identify as Independent than as Republican or Democrat. Who are Independents and how do they impact American politics? This question does not have a clear-cut answer. On the one hand, American Independents are pursued by media and politicians for their (perceived) nonpartisan behavior and their ability to swing elections. On the other hand, Independents are ignored for their low political engagement and dismissed as “closet partisans.” As a result, many analyses of American voters either remove Independents entirely or combine leaners—those Independents who admit feeling closer toward one party or the other—with weak partisans. This puts Independents and the researchers who study them in a strange position as we attempt to understand the role of Independent voters in American politics. The debate about whether Independent leaners are truly independent or whether they are “closet partisans” dominates the literature, but a thorough review of the evidence reveals many interesting findings and generates many interesting research questions surrounding the motivations for an Independent identity and its consequences. We address the who, how, why, and where of Independent voters: Who Are Independents? discusses Measurement of Party Identity and Independence, Partisan Dealignment, and Demographics of Independent Voters; How Do Independents Behave? discusses Voting, Political Interest and Engagement, and Implicit Attitudes and Intergroup Bias; Why Identify As Independent? discusses intrapersonal and interpersonal motivations for identifying as Independent; and Where Do We Go From Here? suggests common practices for researchers to enhance the study of Independent voters.

General Overviews

Early views of party identity paint a picture of Independents as disengaged or confused. Campbell, et al. 1960 portrays Independents as politically inactive (and inconsequential). Keith, et al. 1992 provides a broad overview of the characteristics and behavior of American Independents but ultimately argues that leaners are not Independents and can be combined with partisans. Dalton 2016 explores party identification and its role in political behavior, including Independents. Hajnal and Lee 2011 explores the role of race, ethnicity, and immigration in party identity, including those who do not identify with parties. Klar and Krupnikov 2016 provides a current in-depth investigation of Independent voters in America and emphasizes that American Independents are an extremely important—and overlooked—segment of American voters.

  • Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. The American Voter. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

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    The seminal publication on the role of party identity in voting behavior. Portrays American Independents as apathetic and uninvolved in the American political system.

  • Dalton, Russell J. “Party Identification and Its Implications.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Edited by William R. Thompson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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    Discusses the attitudes and behaviors associated with partisanship and why party membership is significant for democracies. Argues that voters who identify as Independent are young, educated voters who base their vote on political events rather than party loyalty.

  • Hajnal, Zoltan L., and Taeku Lee . Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400838776Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Explores how race, ethnicity, and immigration influence party identification, especially the rates of American independence and nonpartisanship. Argues that significant portions of Asian Americans and Latinx Americans do not identify as partisan or independent, and explores the influences and consequences of nonidentification.

  • Keith, Bruce E., David B. Magleby, Candice J. Nelson, Elizabeth A. Orr, and Mark C. Westlye. The Myth of the Independent Voter. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

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    Provides a detailed account of American Independents, including their demographics and voting behavior, and investigates larger questions around partisan dealignment and restructuring. Portrays Independents as mostly “closet partisans” who lean toward the Republican or Democratic Party and respectively behave like partisans.

  • Klar, Samara, and Yanna Krupnikov. Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316471050Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides a comprehensive analysis of American Independents and focuses on the roles of self-presentation and “anti-partyism” in identification as Independent. Although the authors treat Independents as “undercover partisans” who are “Independent in Name Only,” they do not dismiss them, but rather explore their reasons for rejecting partisanship and the consequences for American politics.

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