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Analysis | Independent leaners hate the other party more than they like the one they vote for

New data show the role negative partisanship plays with independents.


GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

We tend to think of the American electorate as being made up of three parts: Democrats, Republicans and independents. Most independents, about 30 percent of the country, usually vote with one party or the other. Only about 11 percent of the electorate doesn’t lean to one of the major parties, according to August Gallup data.

New data from Pew Research give us some insight why.

Pew regularly asks an unusual question of poll respondents: Rate a group or a party on a scale of 0 to 100, reflecting how warmly you feel about it. A rating of 0 indicates that the respondent’s views are ice-cold. A 100 is something that the respondent feels very warmly about.

In the most recent iteration of the question, Pew found that attitudes toward the political parties grow more warm the more closely aligned the respondent is with the party. That’s not a surprise. Democrats like the Democratic Party; Democratic-leaning independents, less so; Republican-leaning independents, even less; etc.


It works the other way, too.


What’s interesting, though, is that the attitudes of independent leaners aren’t as evenly balanced as you might assume. Democratic-leaning independents are lukewarm about the Democratic Party — but hold very cold views of the Republicans. Swap “Democratic” and “Republican” in that sentence, and it still holds true.


The implication is that independents who usually vote Republican do so to some not-insignificant degree because they dislike the Democratic Party.

This fits with the idea that negative partisanship plays a significant role in politics at the moment; that is, dislike of the other party is a bigger motivator than support for your own.

Last November, after the results of the election were in, Pew found that, for the first time in 30 years, a majority of Americans felt dissatisfied with the candidate options presented on the ballot. As a result, a lot of people voted not for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump but against the other candidate. More than a third of voters said that the votes they cast were negative in that way.


That’s among voters, not just partisans. So it includes the 31 percent of Trump’s support which came from independents and the 27 percent of Clinton’s. Pew found that about 38 percent of each candidate’s support came from people voting against their opponent.

There’s a reason independents aren’t members of political parties, after all! If you hate the Democrats but are lukewarm on the Republicans, you’ll probably not join the Republican Party even if you consistently vote against the Democrats. Pew found that only 1 percent of Republican leaners said that “Republican” described them very well and 2 percent of Democratic leaners said that about “Democrat.”

The figure for Republican leaners, incidentally, is a big drop from 2016, when 5 percent said “Republican” described them very well. You can see a difference, too, when the leaners were asked about the parties they tend to vote for. Democratic leaners had warmer feelings to the Democratic Party than cold. Republican leaners felt slightly more cold toward the GOP than warm.

That’s the sort of result you might expect to see if, say, an independent who voted Republican did so because they disliked Clinton — but they also weren’t very excited about Trump.

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