A row of five voting booths with men and women casting their ballots at a polling place. Horizontal format, only showing the legs of the voters, people are unrecognizable..; Shutterstock ID 114656170; Job: -

The mythical independent voter isn't going to save us

Updated 1:11 PM ET, Fri November 15, 2019

Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.

David B. Magleby is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Brigham Young University, and coauthor of the recent book, "Who Donates in Campaigns? The Importance of Message, Messenger, Medium, and Structure," with Jay Goodliffe and Joseph Olsen. Candice J. Nelson is Professor of Government at American University, and co-editor of the recent book, "Campaigns and Elections American Style," with James A. Thurber. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In the United States today, independent voters are often presented as the electoral kingmakers. Not surprisingly then, nearly every political poll takes their views into account. And given that independents have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans in multiple surveys since the late 1970s, that seems to make sense. In 2016, for example, according to the American National Election Studies (ANES), 38% of Americans were independent, while only 33% identified as Democrats and 29% as Republican. Moreover, they are often presumed to be less partisan and less ideological -- thus more open to persuasion than party members.

David B. Magleby
Candice J. Nelson
But the truth is independents are not nearly as "neutral" as we think. In our research, we found that roughly two-thirds of self-declared independents are partisan. To put it simply, they have strong political leanings that they don't immediately reveal to pollsters. And they are therefore less likely to close political divides than we might otherwise assume.
Once this reality is factored into the analysis of the electorate, the picture changes dramatically. According to the ANES, of the 38% of voters who initially said they were independent in 2016, just over one-third (34%) leaned Democratic and 38% leaned Republican. Democratic-leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton (92%), while Republican-leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump (91%). As is often the case in voting, only about a third of independents are truly independent.
It is just as important to distinguish independent "leaners" from actual independents when looking at specific issues. Take, for example, a recent Quinnipiac University poll on impeachment. If looked at as a group, independents appeared about evenly divided, with 50% believing Congress should impeach President Donald Trump and remove him from office, and 45% thinking they should not. But of independents who lean Democratic, 90% said Congress should try to impeach Trump, while 74% of independents who lean Republican said Congress should not pursue impeachment proceedings.
True independents were the only ones more evenly divided, with 52% favoring impeachment and 44% against. This highlights a persistent trend: most independents lean towards a party -- and those that lean are not really independent.
Our research has found that independent leaners are partisans in how they vote as well, consistently voting for the party to which they were already inclined. This has been the case for decades and remained the case in the 2018 midterm elections. Democratically-leaning independents voted 94% for Democratic House candidates, and Republican-leaning independents voted 88% for Republican House candidates.