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Independent Voters: A Comparative Analysis of Former Partisans to Lifelong Independents

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

By Laura Edwards

Nonpartisan. Unaffiliated. Decline to state. No party preference. Other. Apolitical. Moderate. Swing voter. True neutral. Independent. These labels have been used interchangeably in defining the often overlooked voting bloc of American voters who remain untethered to the two major political parties. Yet, Independent voters comprise the single largest political affiliation in the United States. This study strives to understand who Independent voters are, and how lifelong independents compare to those who were once former partisans.

Survey sample size was 465 respondents total. Of this group, 243 were lifelong independents, compared to 222 partisan defectors. This relatively even split of lifelong/partisan independents was naturally occurring, which is significant because it reaffirms the importance of both groups and the reason for the comparison. In this comparative analysis study between lifelong independents and former partisans, no causal claims can be made. However, the implications of this research provide substantial knowledge, previously unknown, about the varying perspectives of Independent voters, as well as insight into the future of the two major political party system.

Previous studies have shown that Independents have no unified ideology due to the combination of both liberal and conservative closet partisans. When comparing the subgroups created by this thesis, it is found that Partisan defectors and lifelong independents are alike in that they are a mix of different political value ideologies. Both have a broad range of ideologies and feel that neither political party matches their political beliefs, but still find implications of closet partisanship due to the polar differences between parties.

One of the main differences between lifelong independents and former partisans is in how warmly they feel toward their own political affiliation. Those who have spent their lives as independents are more content and have an overall positive perception of their political identity; whereas. individuals who were once members of a previous political party are passively neutral towards calling themselves Independent. This dissatisfaction of former partisans implies that their affiliation does not spark joy, and therefore has the potential to change once again under the correct circumstances. This would allow political parties the chance to court former partisans back into the fold, whereas it may be more difficult to convince a lifelong independent to join a political party having never done so before.

The data also highlights future implications for political parties. Former Democratic defectors took issue against partisan fighting and their own political party moving farther from the center, which was a common complaint from all sides of the political spectrum. This was to be expected, but one of the largest interpretations from the free-response section in this study were the statements that Republican defectors provided on why they left their previous party. It is important to note that for partisan defectors, the decision to leave the party has been a recent decision. As is noticed in the research section, both Republican and Democratic defectors left their respective parties in unprecedented numbers in 2016, when both parties’ candidates were more unpopular than had ever been seen in public opinion. With 50% of defection occurring either during or after 2012, it is revealed that 2016 accounts for 25% of all defection, which is the greatest single year for abandonment, followed by 2008 at 9%. In their open-ended responses, many partisan defectors cited 2016 as the reason for their defection.

However, with former Republicans, the two-sided fallout in extremism was an unexpected discovery that could have major consequences for the future or fractioning of the Republican party. In today’s political atmosphere, there appears to be more who have abandoned the Republican society in its current form. While these former Republican partisans still hold on to their conservative positions, they no longer wish to be connected by a polarizing political figure. While they may have left the party brand, their conservative beliefs have not left them. Regardless, it is the polarization of both the officials of the major political parties and the positions they have taken which are responsible in shifting moderate voters away from the major political parties and towards an independent position. Because they still hold true to their initial values (conservative or liberal) the other major party is not a place where most partisan defectors can switch. Instead, they became lost in the purgatory of an Independent affiliation.

Lastly, this survey offers new perspective on how Independents make voting decisions. In general, partisan defectors look similar to lifelong independents in behavior as essentially both subgroups are found to be issue-based voters but find themselves without a party label when they cannot find a candidate that they feel truly represents them. For example, while many conservative defectors cite Trump and the far-right as the catalyst for their defection, the positions taken by other political parties do not match the value set that each defector has on an individual basis. The main difference between the two subgroups simply is that the partisan defectors feel rejected or abandoned by their party because of key party individuals that made the major political party no longer tolerable, and with no other parties offering positions that match their beliefs and values, they are left falling into the pool of Independent voters. Also, it is in this very pool of vastly different individual voters, with conservative or liberal values, that a majority of voters in American politics have found themselves.


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