Most Voters think that we have two Parties with some Independents. They are wrong!

August 16, 2020

I have been negligent not to cover this subject before because it is one the more important tenets of modern political science. The concept of party identification is one of the most important theories in American politics and still the major reason for most people’s vote choice.

But most Americans think that there are only two parties, with some independents stuck in between them. Admittedly, this a simple concept and understandable, but it is wrong.

Political Scientists have understood since the 1960’s with the development of modern polling, that partisan identification is a continuum of party identities and strengths and not a binary choice.

One the biggest misunderstanding is that independents are a homogeneous group that makes their choice absent of partisan influences. But studies show that this not the case.

From the 1960’s on, political scientists have developed methods to uncover the multiple nuances of party identification. The longest and most commonly used method is known as the Michigan scale.

With this scale, Party identification is measured by asking individuals whether they consider themselves to be a Democrat, Republican, or independent. Those indicating Democratic or Republican are then asked whether they are a strong or a weak Democrat or Republican, while those claiming to be an independent are asked whether they feel closer to one of the two political parties.

This yields a seven-fold classification: strong Democrats, weak Democrats, independents closer to the Democrats, independents not closer to either party, independents closer to the Republicans, weak Republicans, and strong Republicans.

Using data from the 2020 American National Election Survey (ANES), I can test the impact of this party id scale on candidate impressions and vote choice.

Using their thermometer ratings on Trump and Biden, where voters rate on a scale of zero to 100 degrees (positive ratings above 50 degrees), we can see how these seven different party identities rate these two candidates for President. Using the seven-point party identification, we find significant rating differences between Republicans when we separate them into different partisan strengths.

The strong Republicans rate Donald Trump with a remarkable 85 degrees. If he was arrested tomorrow, they would still vote for him. But as levels of Republican strength decline, so does his rating. There is a drop of over 20 degrees between the strong and weak Republicans. But this is still a healthy rating.

With Independents who lean Republican, his rating is, oddly, slightly higher. Remember, these are voters who initially said they were Independents. But as you can see, they act like traditional Republicans.

Pure independents drop below 50 degrees, into negative territory, but still higher than independents who lean Democratic, who put the President at the second lowest rating at 17.4 degrees.

As expected, both weak and strong Democrats have negative views of him, with strong Democrats bringing up the rear at less than 15 degrees.

Before we decide how these voters will ultimately vote, we have to see how well Joe Biden does with the categories of voters. Below is a chart of the Biden ratings using the same seven point scale.

As expected, we see the opposite of Trump ratings for Biden. What stood out me is how pure independents dislike both candidates. Trump’s independent rating is 33.4 degrees and Biden’s is 34.8 degrees. For them, this is a hold-your-nose choice.

The other major difference is the different levels of intensities between Trump and Biden ratings among their own partisans. The most important difference are among strong partisans, where strong Republican’s give Trump an 85.2 degree rating and strong Democrat’s rate Biden at 70.7 degrees, a 14.5 degree difference in Trump’s favor. The same is true, but at a lesser level, of the differences among weaker Democrats and Republicans.

Intensity of support for Trump has always been his strong point, and so far, that is still the case. How would that affect the election? In a close election, it could be deciding. Bad weather, complacency, and over-confidence could effect the Democratic vote. My opinion of Trump voters is that they would show up in a Blizzard in November for him.

Political studies show a high correlation between the seven-point identification and vote choice. In this survey, they included who they would vote for in the general election if it were between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

This survey was completed in July, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in the trial ballot, where Biden has 51.3% and Trump 48.7%. In the table below, I compare vote choice by these voters’ 7-point party id.


As you can see, Trump’s percent of the vote starting with strong Republicans shows they choose him over Biden with 96.6% of their vote. Weak Republicans drop down to 84.3% and independents who lean Republicans at 87.2%.

In other words, voters who said they were independents initially, but when probed said they leaned Republican, chose Trump almost 3% more than traditional Republicans.

The same is true for Independents who said they leaned Democratic. They gave Biden 88% of their vote compared to traditional Democrats 85.6%. Both Republican and Democratic leaner’s are more partisan that traditional rank and file partisans.

These results are confirmed by previous studies showing that many so-called independents are more partisan than weaker party voters.

The other take away is that Republican voters give more support to their candidates than Democrats. And pure Independents favor Democrats slightly more than Republicans.

I want to emphasize that these results don’t predict who will be victorious in November. But the thermometer ratings at this point in time, suggest a closer race than current polls now indicate.

This analysis confirms what political scientists have known for sometime. First, a person’s party id is the primary cause for vote choice even in presidential campaigns where voters are far more informed on the candidate’s positions on important issues than in state or local elections. In low information elections, party id is often the only reason.

The long held belief that independents are neutral is basically a myth. As I show, some types of independents are more partisan than many Democrats and Republicans.

The only problem for poll watchers is that practically no public pollsters use this scale. It is almost exclusively an academic survey question.

That’s unfortunate, because in combination with the trial ballot question, it reveals more information about a voter’s likely choice than any other traditional question. Do a political junkie, like myself a favor, call your Congressman and demand that public pollsters insert this in every political questionnaire! Be safe…

By Jim Kane

Jim Kane is a pollster and media advisor, and was for fifteen years an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Kane is founder of the polling firm USAPoll and served as the Director of the Florida Voter Poll. His political clients have included both Republican and Democratic candidates, including the Republican Party of Florida, and both the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel newspapers. At the University of Florida, Professor Kane taught graduate level courses in political science on Survey Research, Lobbying and Special Interest Groups in America, Political Campaigning, and Political Behavior. In addition to his professional and academic career, Jim Kane has been actively involved in local and state policy decisions. He was elected to the Broward County Soil and Water Conservation Board (1978-1982) and the Port Everglades Authority (1988-1994). Kane also served as an appointed member of the Broward County Planning Council (1995-2003), Broward County Management Review Committee (Chair, 1990-1991), Broward County Consumer Protection Board (1976-1982), and the Broward County School Board Consultants Review Committee (1986-1990).


    1. These are the survey percentages for each group.
      1. Strong Republican 21.1
      2. Weak Republican 10.7
      3. Lean Republican 7.0
      4. Independent 13.6
      5. Lean Democrat 9.7
      6. Weak Democrat 12.6
      7. Strong Democrat 25.3

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