According to a Gallup survey, the percentage of Americans identifying as political independents increased in 2011 by two points to 40 percent, the highest Gallup has ever measured. What’s interesting to note is that Gallup records from 1951-1988 indicate that the percentage of independents was generally in the low 30 percent range during those years, suggesting that the proportion of independents in 2011 was the largest in at least 60 years.
In addition, more Americans continue to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, 31 percent to 27 percent. (Republican identification dropped from 29 percent to 27 percent while Democratic identification held steady at 31 percent). Gallup points out that more Americans have identified as Democrats than Republicans in all but a few years since 1988 and the four-point gap between the two parties remains below the eight-point (36 percent to 28 percent) and seven-point (34 percent to 27 percent) Democratic advantages in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
In addition, when independents’ party leanings are taken into account and combined with the party’s core identifiers, the parties end up tied. In 2011, 45 percent of Americans identified as Republicans or leaned to the Republican Party and 45 percent identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic. This is similar to 2010, when the Democrats had a 1-point advantage in leaned party identification yet suffered massive losses in the mid-term election. (Democrats have held an advantage for leaned party identification for most of the 21 years Gallup has tracked this measure.)
The increased independent identification is consistent with what one would expect, given the record levels of distrust in government and the unfavorable views of both parties. What’s interesting is that while the GOP’s rating is relatively low, the number of people who self-identify as conservative is at the highest number (41 percent) since the early 1990s. Thirty-six percent self-identify as moderates, while only 21 percent self-identify as liberals.
The bottom line, then, is conservatism is viewed much more favorably than the Republican Party. The number of independents is at a record level and will (as always) be key to winning the presidency. And the GOP, although it saw its support drop in 2011, is still in fairly good shape vis-à-vis the Democratic Party, especially when you take into the party leanings of independents.