How Independent Are Independent Voters?

The American electorate is more divided today than ever, cable news pundit wisdom informs us.

With entrenched battle lines separating the two major parties, everything comes down to Independent voters, the story goes. So pick your election topic du jour—a vice presidential selection, new campaign ads, debate performance—and the big question of the day inevitably becomes WWID? As in, what will independents do? How might these unaffiliated and presumably more objective voters react to the nominee, controversy, statement, or gaffe? But who are these Independents? And just how independent are they anyway? OK, so they’re not as mysterious a group as the supposedly undecided voters who still haven’t made up their minds by the first week of November. You know, the ones who get themselves on post-debate TV focus groups and, after an interminable year-plus of campaigning, still claim that they’re hoping to hear a bit more before making a decision. But if our electorate is more polarized now than ever, how exactly have these Independents managed to remain above the fray and maintain objectivity?

New research just published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that Independents may not be quite as independent as they claim they are. Across a series of studies, researchers at the University of Virginia presented respondents with different policies to evaluate and examined the extent to which political affiliation colored their perceptions. For example, in a finding that will surprise very few who have ever read a newspaper, self-identified Democrats evaluated a hypothetical policy more positively when they were told it had been proposed by Democrats as opposed to by Republicans. And Republican respondents were similarly biased, rating the exact same policy as better when it was proposed by Republicans versus Democrats. This is the very type of top-down opinion formation we’ve come to expect in politics, with voters (and politicians) allowing affiliation to color their perception as opposed to conducting an objective evaluation of policies based on merit.


It’s little different than the processes by which fans of opposing sports teams manage to see the same plays (or referee calls) very differently.


Kemo D. 7


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