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Political Independence in America, Part I: On Being an Independent Partisan Supporter


With the decline in popular attachment to the two major parties in the United States since the mid-1960s, collective political independence has risen. Using new survey questions introduced in 1980, this article employs alternative measures of independence to reassess the phenomenon of independence in America. These new measures give us fresh insights beyond what we had using only the traditional measures. One casualty of this new approach is the portrait of the Independent given by The American Voter. This portrait appears seriously misleading, given that it is those who deny being either partisan or Independent who fit that portrait – not Independents per se. And the most politically involved voters turn out to be Independent Partisan Supporters; not simple partisans.

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1 See Dennis Jack, ‘Changing Public Support for the American Party System’, in Crotty William J., ed, Paths to Political Reform (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1980), pp. 3566; Miller Warren E., Miller Arthur H. and Schneider Edward J., American National Election Studies Data Sourcebook (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1980). p. 81; and King Anthony, ‘Whatever is Happening to the British Party System?PS, 15 (1982), 1017. Also see Nie Norman H., Verba Sidney and Petrocik John R., The Changing American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976); and Crewe Ivor, Särlvik Bo and Alt James, ‘Partisan Dealignment in Britain 1964–1974’, British Journal of Political Science, 7 (1977), 129–90.

2 Burnham Walter Dean, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970).

3 Dennis Jack, ‘Support for the Party System by the Mass Public’, American Political Science Review, 60 (1966), 600–15; and also ‘Trends in Public Support for the American Party System’, British Journal of Political Science, 5 (1975). 187230.

4 Miller, Miller and Schneider, American National Election Studies Data Sourcebook, pp. 80–1.

5 Keith Bruce E., Magleby David R., Nelson Candice J., Westlye Elizabeth Orr. Mark and Wolfinger Raymond E., ‘The Myth of the Independent Voter’, paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1977, and published in the British Journal of Political Science. 16 (1986), 155–86 as ‘The Partisan Affinities of Independent “Leaners”’; and ‘Further Evidence on the Partisan Affinities of Independent “Leaners”’, paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1983.

6 See, for example, Huckshorn Robert J. and Bibby John F., ‘State Parties in an Era of Political Change’, in Fleishman Joel L., ed., The Future of American Political Parties (New York: American Assembly, 1982). pp. 70100.

7 See the sceptical observations of Epstein Leon D. in Political Parties in Western Democracies (New York, Praeger, 1967), pp. 78; and King Anthony, ‘Political Parties in Western Democracies: Some Skeptical Reflections’, Polity, 1 (1969), 111–41.

8 See Dennis Jack, ‘The Child's Acquisition of Partisanship and Independence’, paper delivered at the Western Political Science Association Annual Meeting, San Diego, 1982; and ‘Preadult Learning of Political Independence: Media and Family Communication Effects’, Communication Research, 13 (1986), 401–33. Also see Minns Daniel, ‘Changes in Childhood and Adolescent Motivations and Values about Voting’, unpublished paper, Department of Political Science, Case Western Reserve University, 1982; and Jennings M. Kent and Niemi Richard G., Generations and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

9 Lowell A. Lawrence, ‘Oscillations in Politics’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 12 (1898), 6997.

10 Merriam Charles E. and Gosnell Harold F., The American Party System (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 196.

11 Campbell Angus and Miller Warren E., ‘The Motivational Basis of Straight and Split Ticket Voting’, American Political Science Review, 51 (1957), 293312; and DeVries Walter and Tarrance V. Lance, The Ticket-Splitter: A New Force in American Politics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972).

12 Key V. O. Jr., The Responsible Electorate (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966).

13 Daudt H., Floating Voters and the Floating Vote (Leiden: Stenfert Kroese, 1961); and Converse Philip E., ‘Information Flow and the Stability of Partisan Attitudes’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 26 (1962), 578–99; and Dobson Douglas and St Angelo Douglas, ‘Party Identification and the Floating Vote: Some Dynamics’, American Political Science Review, 59 (1975), 481–90.

14 Keith et al. , ‘The Myth of the Independent Voter’; Petrocik John R., ‘An Analysis of Intransitivities in the Index of Party Identification’, Political Methodology, 1 (1974), 3147; Valentine David C. and Van Wingen John R., ‘Partisanship, Independence, and the Partisan Identification Question’, American Politics Quarterly, 8 (1980), 165–86; and Shively W. Phillips, ‘The Nature of Party Identification: A Review of Recent Developments’, in Pierce John C. and Sullivan John L., eds, The Electorate Reconsidered (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980), pp. 219–36; LeBlanc Hugh and Merrin Mary Beth, ‘Independents, Issue Partisanship and the Decline of Party’, American Politics Quarterly, 7 (1979), 240–54; and Weisberg Herbert, ‘Party Identification: A Multidimensional Conceptualization’, Political Behavior, 2 (1980), 3360.

15 Keith et al. , ‘The Myth of the Independent Voter’.

16 Petrocik, ‘An Analysis of Intransitivities’.

17 Knoke David, Change and Continuity in American Politics: The Social Bases of Political Parties (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976); Brody Richard, ‘Change and Stability in the Components of Partisan Identification’, DEA News (Spring, 1977), 1318; LeBlanc and Merrin, ‘Independents, Issue Partisanship’.

18 A subcommittee of the 1980 NES Study Committee developed new measures in the area of partisanship. The members of the subcommittee were Richard Brody, Herbert Weisberg and the present author.

19 For analyses of the variations on the party supporter theme in Europe and elsewhere, see Budge Ian, Crewe Ivor and Farlie Dennis, eds, Parly Identification and Beyond (New York: Wiley, 1976), Chaps 2–5.

20 See Fiorina Morris P., ‘An Outline for a Model of Party Choice’, American Journal of Political Science, 21 (1977), 601–25, for more extensive treatment of this possible form of partisan self-image.

21 See Wattenberg Martin P., The Decline of American Political Parties: 1952–1980 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 1984) for an analysis of the possible extent of such growing indifference.

22 See Dennis ‘Support for the Party System’, and ‘Trends in Public Support’.

23 Berelson Bernard R., Lazarsfeld Paul F. and McPhee Willian N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1954), p. 27.

24 Campbell Angus, Converse Philip E., Miller Warren E. and Stokes Donald E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), p. 143.

25 Key, The Responsible Electorate, especially pp. 78, 91106.

26 Agger Robert E., ‘Independents and Party Identifiers: Characteristics and Behavior in 1952’, in Burdick Eugene and Brodbeck Arthur J., eds, American Voting Behavior (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959), pp. 308–29.

27 RePass David, ‘Issue Salience and Party Choice’, American Political Science Review, 65 (1971), 389400, at p. 398.

28 Burnham, Critical Elections, p. 127.

29 Pomper Gerald, Voters' Choice: Varieties of American Electoral Behavior (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975), p. 33.

30 Asher Herbert, Presidential Elections and American Politics (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1980), p. 129.

31 Asher, Presidential Elections, p. 127.

32 The authors who came closest to finding a parallel path to the present one through these problems of reconceptualization and measurement are John R. Van Wingen and David C. Valentine. See especially their ‘Biases in the Partisan Identification Index as a Measure of Partisanship’, Department of Political Science, University of Southern Mississippi, 1980, which uses the 1976 NES data.

33 See Weisberg, ‘A Multidimensional Conceptualization’.

34 See Figure 4. The natural scoring on these items was reversed in computing the Index of Political Involvement.

35 For more discussion of how to measure party system support, see Dennis Jack, ‘Support for the Party System by the Mass Public’, ‘Trends in Public Support for the American Party System’, ‘Changing Public Support for the American Party System’, in Crotty William J., ed., Paths to Political Reform (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980) pp. 3566; and ‘Public Support for the Party System, 1964–1984’, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, 08 1986.

36 For a useful introduction to this technique, see Klecka William R., Discriminant Analysis (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980).

37 Weisberg, ‘A Multidimensional Conceptualization’.

38 That Independent Partisan Supporters are relatively positive towards the party system is shown in some of the data from the Pilot Study that preceded the P1 survey. (The Pilot Study was conducted in 1979.) Pilot Study respondents were asked to agree or disagree, along a seven-point scale, with the following: ‘Democracy works best where competition between parties is strong’. Among Independent Partisan Supporters 59 per cent agreed very strongly (point 7 on the 7-point scale). This is in contrast to Ordinary Partisans (23 per cent). Among the Unattached and Ordinary Independents the proportions were 26 and 27 per cent respectively.

* Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison. This is a revised and shortened version of a paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting, April 1981. 1 am indebted to the many professional colleagues who participated in the extended round of conferences, committee meetings and personal communications that resulted in the design and operationalization of the 1980 National Election Study – especially those who paid special attention to the study of partisanship and independence. I also thank the 1980 National Election Study Staff for their useful input into question wording as well as their efficient conduct of the study, the National Science Foundation for funding the whole enterprise, and the Research Committee of the Graduate School, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for computer time and other funds necessary for me to analyse the data. I owe a special debt to Diane Kaiser who managed and massaged the data with great skill, speed and accuracy.

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British Journal of Political Science
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