Authors: Samara Mani Klar
Party identification is central to scholarly analyses of American political behavior. Studies show that party identification accurately predicts candidate choice (Bartels 2002; Hillygus & Shields 2008), positively correlates with voters‘ evaluations of political issues (Dalton & Wattenberg 2000: 21), and appears to be highly stable (Campbell et al. 1960; Green et al., 2002). Studies addressing those voters who report no party identification—political independents—remain, on the other hand, limited. Self-identified independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in the American electorate,1 and are regularly singled out as a key to winning elections (Broder 2009; Hillygus & Shields 2008), yet few studies address political engagement among independents. This scholarly neglect may be due to the common assumption that independents simply do not engage in politics but are rather apathetic and ill-informed. In this paper, I question this presupposition. Using data from two national surveys, I measure political engagement among independents and party identifiers. I demonstrate that independents are not uniformly disengaged, and that they vary in political engagement to the same degree as do partisans. I theorize that independents and partisans vary in their political engagement for different reasons. For partisans, ideological extremity explains engagement; in contrast, for independents, I hypothesize that engagement depends instead on the strength with which one identifies as an independent – a construct I call identity importance.