Independents aren’t a unified political bloc. Here’s what they really think

A dive into independents’ views highlights two basic principles for thinking about their role in the nation’s politics. First, it shows the limits of treating “independents” as a single, centrist political bloc — or even as an ideologically coherent one. Second, however, the poll also shows that independents are still notably different from self-identified partisans in some key ways, and that the issues where they break away from those partisan structures are often critical stress points.

The vast majority of so-called independents, pollsters have consistently found, feel at least some kinship to one party or the other. In CNN’s poll, more than 9 in 10 independents, when asked, said they leaned at least somewhat toward either Democrats or Republicans.

These “leaners” have much more in common with their favored parties than they do with other independents who lean the opposite way. As a case in point, 90% of Democratic-leaning independents in the CNN poll who voted last year said they had voted for President Joe Biden, while 84% of Republican-leaning independents who voted said they had cast their ballots for former President Donald Trump.

Partisan-leaning independents, perhaps unsurprisingly, are less supportive than their partisan counterparts of congressional leaders, a difference that’s especially stark on the GOP side. In the CNN poll, an 83% majority of Democrats and a 69% majority of Democratic leaners approved of the way Democratic leaders in Congress were handling their jobs. Across the aisle, 58% of Republicans approved of the way GOP leaders in Congress are handling their jobs, but just 29% of Republican leaners agreed.

Notably, however, there’s far less of a difference between partisans and leaners in their views of the opposing party — disapproval of GOP leaders was about similarly high among Democrats (85%) and Democratic-leaning independents (81%), while disapproval of Democratic leaders was shared by most Republicans (94%) and Republican-leaning independents (90%).

Independent registered voters are less likely to say they’re already enthusiastic about voting in 2022 than are partisans, a dynamic that’s especially notable on the Democratic side. Among registered voters, similar shares of Democrats (31%) and Republicans (32%) describe themselves as “extremely enthusiastic.” But just one-quarter of Republican leaners, and only 15% of Democratic leaners, share that sentiment.

There are demographic difference between partisans and independents as well. Democrats are mostly female and about evenly divided between Whites and people of color, the poll found, while Democratic-leaners are predominantly White and closer to evenly split along gender lines.

Democrats are also somewhat likelier than Democratic-leaning independents to have college degrees. Republicans are more overwhelmingly White than are Republican-leaning independents, and are more likely to describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.

Leaners and partisans also diverge in some places on their political priorities, but the two parties see internal divides over different sets of issues. Republican-leaning independents are 12 percentage points likelier than Republicans to say it’s very important that the government takes aggressive action on climate change, while the gap between Democratic-leaning independents and Democrats is only half as big. Similarly, there’s more of a divide on the GOP side over the importance of investing in infrastructure or stemming undocumented immigration into the US.

By comparison, there’s more contrast within the broader Democratic coalition about the importance of enacting stronger laws to counteract racist policies and institutions. Democrats are 13 points likelier than Democratic-leaners to call this very important, compared with a 6-point gap on the GOP side.

Similarly, Democrats are 16 points likelier than Democratic leaners to place high importance on passing legislation that would expand access to voting, while Republicans and Republican-leaners are largely agreed in finding the the issue unimportant.

The differences between partisans and leaners are generally more muted when it comes to Covid-19. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have similar views about the trajectory of the pandemic and report taking similar levels of personal precautions, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents also share comparable views with each other.

On policy issues, however, the Democratic side shows somewhat greater divides. Democrats are most likely to say that, generally speaking, vaccine mandates are an acceptable way to increase the vaccination rate (80%), followed by Democratic leaners (64%) and then Republicans and Republican leaners (25% and 23%, respectively).

That dynamic repeats in regard to specific vaccine policies: Democrats are more universally supportive than Democratic-leaning independents, while there’s relatively little distinction between Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. For instance, 81% of Democrats support workplace vaccine mandates, compared with 71% of Democratic leaners and 27% of both Republicans and Republican leaners.

To the extent that independents are united as a single bloc, it’s largely in their general sense of dissatisfaction. In the CNN poll, conducted through August and early September, independents gave negative ratings to President Joe Biden (54% disapprove), as well as both parties’ leaders in Congress (75% disapprove of the Republicans and 62% of the Democrats). Overall, 77% said they’re not well-represented in government. They were also pessimistic about how things are going in the country, with 72% saying things are going badly.

The CNN Poll was conducted by SSRS from August 3 through September 7 among a random national sample of 2,119 adults initially reached by mail. It included 782 political independents, 361 of whom leaned toward the Democratic Party and 400 of whom leaned toward the Republican Party. Interviews were conducted either online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points; among the full sample of political independents, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

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