Mark Mellman: Are independents really so independent? The voter files say they think and vote like partisans



People repeat it regularly. “Partisanship is in decline. Independents are the booming segment.”

Political partisanship entails at least two distinctly different facets, and keeping them separate is important. On the one hand, partisanship is a psychological concept. How do you feel about the parties?

I’ve written before about the fact that most people who respond to poll questions tapping their psychological predispositions by telling us they are independents are, in fact, closet partisans.

In 31 states (plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands), partisanship is also a legal concept. It’s about which party you checked on the voter registration form.

The always thoughtful and inquisitive founding editor and CEO of the Nevada Independent, Jon Ralston, chronicled the growing number of legal independents in Nevada, a phenomenon evident in other states as well.

Just over a decade ago, when I had the privilege of working with an amazing team to re-elect Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, one of the very finest people I’ve ever known, just 22 percent of Nevadans were registered as something other than Democrats or Republicans. Much further back, in 1972, it was fewer than 8 percent.

Today, it’s 36 percent.

Ralston asked my firm to examine Nevada’s nonpartisan registrants, though the basic conclusions probably apply elsewhere.

Because our poll used a sample generated from the state’s voter file, we know whether each individual signed up as a Democrat, or as a Republican, or as neither.

We asked those registered as nonpartisans a question we typically pose about psychological partisanship.

Roughly equal thirds of registered nonpartisans identified with each party grouping. Thirty-five percent identified as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans and 32 percent were, psychologically speaking, true independents.

Of course, they are more independent than the state as a whole, but on first blush, two-thirds of voters who are legally registered as non-partisans turn out to identify themselves psychologically with one major party or the other.

In our hyper-polarized society, most people, and most Nevadans, like their party but disdain the opposition. They don’t just feel positively about their own party, they actively dislike the other one.

Seventy-three percent of Nevada’s partisan registrants fall into that category, while a very similar 68 percent of registered nonpartisans follow suit—harboring a favorable view of one party and an unfavorable view of the other. It’s further evidence most are closet partisans.

Another 14 percent of nonpartisan registrants dislike both parties, while an intrepid 6 percent actually persist in expressing favorable attitudes toward both Democrats and Republicans. 

At the end of the day though, we are ultimately interested less in how voters feel about parties, or how they sign forms, than about how they vote.

We gave Nevadans two ways to tell us.

First, we asked in a generic way how often they voted for Democratic and for Republican candidates.

Over 70 percent of registered nonpartisans “often” or “almost always” vote for one party’s candidates or the other’s, further diminishing the core of the truly independent.

When we gave respondents actual candidate match-ups to vote in — for governor and Senate — the partisanship of declared nonpartisans was similarly conspicuous.

In three match-ups, 85 percent of registered independents never crossed party lines. Over two-thirds (67 percent) voted for either the Democrat or the Republican 3 of 3 times.

The difference between the 67 percent and the 85 percent were folks who may have voted for Republican or Democratic candidates 2 of 3 times, but professed indecision on a third vote, thus not crossing party lines.

While the ranks of the registered non-partisans have swelled, the number of true independents has not. Indeed, it probably shrank.

Somewhere between 66 and 85 percent of those registered as independents are actually closet partisans — our cluster analysis pegs the figure at 72 percent in Nevada.

No matter how they sign the form, the vast majority of Americans, including those who register as independents, think and vote like partisans. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel. This column first appeared in The Hill.


  1. The notion that Harry Reid was one of the finest people you ever met, with all due respect, calls into to question your judgment. Outside of Washoe and Clark county (Reno and Las Vegas) Harry Reid is universally hated for the corrupt land exchanges that he and his family did for years with the Federal government. He is the Joe Biden of Nevada. Nevada used to be a red state. A horde of low wage casino employees organized by the culinary workers union during the past 35 years has caused it to go blue. In rural Nevada, there are few people who are ambivalent about their party affiliation; they vote R every time.

  2. Harry Reid was one of the very finest people he’s ever known? I guess if he signed big checks. Mr. Mellman tells us in the third paragraph that people lie in poll responses then goes on to quote poll results. This should shed some light on pollsters. People vote independent because they are embarassed by their party and politicians run as independent to cater to those same people. When they get into office they rarely vote independent. It’s an exercise in “feel good”.

  3. Mellman:
    When you say, “Senator Harry Reid is one of the finest people you’ve ever known…..” …, you’ve just lost your own credibility and independent mind. Dingy Harry Reid was one of the most corrupt, partisan liars ever seated in the US Senate. A mean-spirited Democrat with a bullying attitude and dishonest to the core.

  4. Isn’t Harry Reid the guy who famously said, “Federal income taxes are voluntary, but if you don’t pay them, we will put you in jail. “ ?

  5. A major, perhaps the major, element in the number of “independents” in Alaska is the number of Alaskans who work for government, work for companies that do extensive business with government, or work for companies that are heavily regulated by government. If you fall into any of those categories, a partisan registration, and especially partisan actions, is NOT good for your career and economic well-being.

    It is especially unhealthy to be registered as a Republican, Constitution Party, Alaska Independence Party, or in some sectors even as a Libertarian. I spent twenty years with the State with my head on the auction block at every election, and about half that time I was still registered as a Democrat, a vestigial remain of my misspent youth. Don’t get cross-threaded with Democrats or powerful Democrat constituencies if you want to keep a government job or do business with the government in a Democrat administration.

    Republicans do a little of it but you generally have to have been pretty obnoxious to get fired by a Republican just for being a Democrat, though the Republicans should do more of it. I think what you’re seeing in other states is what we’ve already seen in Alaska; as government becomes more pervasive, it is in your best interest to be a registered non-partisan and not put bumper stickers on your vehicle or signs in your yard. Plus, in today’s world in some places those things can get your house burned.

    • “Independent”is the new euphemism for Democrat. The Left knows how despised Democrats are. That’s why they change their stripes at election time. Ask Al Gross. As the woman who ran several times against Don Young.

    • The good old ‘go along to get along mantra’ does not support a mandate for change! Hiding in the weeds and keeping your head down and your mouth shut is a self serving cowardice. Too much of that kind of action brought us to where we find ourselves today!

  6. Obviously a voter declaring they are independent or non-partisan is primarily to avoid being identified as a “member” of a political party and thus avoid incurring the wrath of opposite minded people.
    Which brings up a good point: What is the useful purpose of being a member of a party? I would say it might help you organize and perhaps influence a larger group to pursue your political ideals. Most people are not interested in doing that much work.
    Groucho Marx had it right: “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member”.

    • I’m registered non-partisan and it has absolutely nothing to do with what you assume. One, I have better sense than to discuss politics with people that I know aren’t like-minded. Two, if I do fall into the trap of discussing politics, it’s because I don’t care one whit whether they get mad or not. I’m registered as a non-partisan because no party truly represents my small government, fiscally conservative, pro-Constitution views. I was a republican for years. I dropped the party in 2008 when it became clear they had fundamentally shifted to the left and left conservatives like myself behind.

      • It’s all been a dog and pony show hasn’t it? Like the Cold war, there wasn’t one. Wasn’t it just a farce to keep us preoccupied and our heads down while the USSR and the United States had joint bases at the South Pole and also in space?

  7. Big difference between checking a box on a voter registration form and actually being independent. My experience has been 100% of the people claiming to be independent will agree with the Democrat party’s position on issues 100% of the time. I have yet to meet someone claiming to be independent that does not march in lockstep with the Democrats.
    Independent = Democrat vote.

    • You must not be looking in the right place. I know a lot of Independents that used to lean to the right. Politics would be one reason why they didn’t want to be identified as a Republican or a Democrat on paper. Just look at what the Democrats are doing to known Republicans. If you have a trump sticker on your car you’re risking getting a brick thrown through the windshield. Same way at your place of work. Remember that TV commercial of that old lady saying that if Obama didn’t win they were going to burn this mother f***** down. That scared a lot of people. So some people want to be independent and play kind of an underground game in politics.

  8. I quit reading after praising corrupt Harry Reid. I don’t know if independents are partisan, but the author sire is.

    • Reid reminds me of one of those Nazi guys that were so terrible, that you have to double check if he has a pointed tail and a pitchfork as if he’s so vile that he’s a demon. He would make mingola look like a choir boy. I wouldn’t want to be within 2 miles of him. He’s one of those guys that’ll look at you like they’re really looking right through you to the back of you and out the other side. Creepy.

  9. “……..In our hyper-polarized society, most people, and most Nevadans, like their party but disdain the opposition. They don’t just feel positively about their own party, they actively dislike the other one………”
    I’m nonpartisan. I have never been a member of or registered with any political party in my life. But I vote almost exclusively Republican. This is not because I feel positively about Republicans. It’s because I will never vote for a Democrat, and after 1992 when Ross Perot siphoned off enough votes from George Bush to get Bill Clinton elected, I realized that the best of the offered evils had to be a Republican simply to reduce the odds of another Democrat win.

    • Yes, sometimes it takes a knockout blow to the chin to wake people up to the real problem with a third party in the race. Just imagine if Bill and Hillary Clinton were not sent to the White House, we would have a different country now.

  10. Mark you lost me when you said Harry Reid was one of the finest people you have ever known.
    I know that you have no morals if you think he is an upstanding citizen!

  11. I had been a republican my entire adult life until 2008, when I re-registered as non-partisan. My choice to re-register wasn’t so much that I left the republican party as I felt the republican party had left me. I felt no party truly represented my fiscally conservative, small government views any longer. No one could say with any true honesty that the republican party is still the party of small government, low taxes, and low spending. All that said- the democrat party is utterly repugnant to me these days- they have swung so far to the left that I no longer recognize them as the same party. They might as well just call themselves what they are- Socialist. In primary elections, I often vote idealistically and hope for new candidates, fresh faces with fresh ideas. I rarely vote for the incumbent in a primary any longer. In general elections, I consider myself a pragmatist. Only two parties have a shot at winning most elections- democrats or republicans. While I don’t find the republican party to be aligned perfectly with my viewpoints, they are closer than the democrats are by far. So I tend to vote republican, as the lesser of two evils. I suppose according to this guy, that makes me partisan, especially if all they really care about is how I tend to vote. But it’s more complicated than that, and the republican party continues to shift to the left. I would welcome a “Constitution” party, or a “TEA Party” (based on the original premise that we are taxed enough already, rather than the alt-right group it got hijacked into being) in Alaska or something similar that represents my pro-Constitution, pro-limited government, pro-fiscal conservative views. I’ve looked into the Libertarian party, but they don’t really represent me either, although they may be closer than the republican party is.

    • The reason the two dominant parties are usually the only choice is because of the “winner-take-all” system. Win by one vote and you win it all. Voting for a third party usually results in your least preferred candidate winning.
      The two parties, as a result, have evolved to divide litmus test issues evenly and the elections are determined by the 10% of real swing voters. Those voters are influenced by the current state of events and the misinformation (lies) and image-peddling by the campaigns.

  12. I can respect a person’s desire to not be part of the tribes we call political parties. That’s understandable. But I draw a hard line when people start claiming that Democrats (and “Independents”) should have a voice in what Republicans can appear on the ballot, and vice versa. It basically an open invitation for the opposing factions to force garbage candidates onto the ballot. And why? At a time when faith in our election system is at an all time low? We make it even more convoluted?

  13. This system that we vote in is an illusion. We are give a show, a circus act and we pick the best performer. Those same performers are yet only puppets for who really oulls the strings. We give our money, we give our vote, then when the show is over we move on with our lives, while those we vote for do anything but the will of the people. We are presented with social issue here and environmental issue there, but nothing authentic. These issues can only be addressed with more money.

    Stop playing their game and take your lives back.

  14. Bill Walker? Independent, right? Al Gross? Independent…. I don’t know about Nevada, or anywhere else, but here in Alaska the term ‘Independant’ is used simply because “I don’t want to admit that I’m a Democrat because it would damage my reputation” is simply too long.
    – M.John

  15. Many, if not most, non-partisan voters & independents register this way because they wish to avoid the wrath of the intolerant, racist, fascists that make up the core of the Democratic Party. Even though these radicals are a tiny percentage of the overall population, they are well organized and toe the party line without exception. They will become vicious & dangerous when confronted with anything that contradicts their political dogma. A surprising number of these sick individuals are white, college educated females that suffer from identity problems.

  16. Lost me at Harry Reid being one of the finest people the author had ever known. Harry Reid was an opportunistic pork packing politician that obstructed every conservative move in DC.

  17. In Alaska we have The Alaskan Independence Party, which isn’t like those calling themselves independents down below. The majority of people registered as nonpartisan are left leaning, those registered as undeclared are right leaning. There are more people registered as nonpartisans than registered as Democrats, there are more people registered as undeclared than registered Republican, and there are more people registered as undeclared than registered as Republican or Democrat combined.

  18. I also think that most, if not nearly all, people who call themselves “independents” are really closet partisans. A couple of Alaska state wide candidates chose to run as “independents in the 2020 election because they did not want to be identified as leftist Democrats, but their rhetoric outed the. However, everything that Mr. Mellman says is clouded by his statement that former Nevada Senator Harry Reid was “one of the very finest people that he as ever known.”

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