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Are Independents Just Democrats and Republicans by Another Name?

A new Gallup finds a record number of independent. But don't expect a golden age of moderation any time soon.
Campaigners parade along the sidewalks as people head to their polling stations to vote in today's run-off Senate election between incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on December 6, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Campaigners parade along the sidewalks as people head to their polling stations to vote in today's run-off Senate election between incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on December 6, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

According to a Gallup poll out on Thursday, more Americans than ever—46 percent—self-identify as “independent.” But before the trumpets are sounded for a new, free-thinking, gridlock-free world of unaffiliated, presumably moderate voters, it’s important to parse what this might mean—especially given the deep divisions that still cleave the country.

To start with, the word “independent” has a number of meanings. The Gallup poll makes it easy for voters to have the word act as a substitute for “none of the above.” There are all sorts of reasons voters nowadays would not want to tell a pollster they're Democrats or Republicans. Neither party or its leaders is held in high esteem by voters. The favorability rating for the Democratic party reached an all-time low of 36 percent in November, according to Gallup data. At 42 percent, the GOP was up slightly from recent polls, but viewed historically, both numbers were fairly grim; both groups stayed higher than 50 percent for most of the '90s and early 2000s. And the poll numbers of the institutions those parties control—Congress, the White House, even the Supreme Court—are even worse. Congress, site of a long stalemate that is an advertisement for the parties’ ineffectiveness, has flirted with an approval rating in the single digits.