According to our most recent survey, rather than identifying with the Democratic or Republican party 33% of students say they are politically “independent.” This is consistent with polling at the national scale where the plurality of Americans seem to believe they are independent of partisanship.
Is that really true, that Independents equal or outnumber those identifying with either of the two major parties?
Most independents actually express partisan preferences
No it’s not accurate; Research shows that most so-called independents are really just “closet partisans.” As John Petrocik, of the University of Missouri, writes, most “(Americans) prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and inclined to judge candidates on their individual merit.” In the end, however, “Very few Americans lack a party preference.” So, when we asked students who first answered that they were non-partisan if they leaned towards one party or the other, the overwhelming majority of them did express a preference for one of the two major parties, as the pie graphs below demonstrate.
It is Socially Desirable to be an Independent
Individuals prefer to identify as independent because they like to think that they choose their candidate based on their merits and not just simply party affiliation. Additionally, many political science researchers have pointed out the social desirability of non-partisanship. One theory for this is that the media highlights partisan disagreements and gridlock, and therefore people interpret partisanship as a negative trait. “This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party.”
Especially in today’s political climate as the two major political parties grow more polarized, and contempt for the opposing party has also grown considerably. So while the majority of individuals do in fact express a partisan leaning; many report that they are non-partisan because of the positive connotation it provides. This may be a possible explanation for the trends observed among NC State Students.
Students’ Policy Preferences are more in line with Democrats
A much higher percentage of students say they support policies the Democratic Party supports than are willing to call themselves a Democrat. A majority of students support federal funding of Planned Parenthood (66%) and believe that abortion should be legal ‘in most cases’ (69%). Additionally, most oppose the choice to attend private school at public expense (64%), support limits on carbon emissions from U.S. power plants (82%), and believe that illegal immigrants ‘take jobs that Americans don’t want’ (62%).
So why do solid majorities back Democratic policies but only about half (51%) call themselves Democrats? The likely explanation has two parts to it. First, most of the policies we asked about on this survey inquire about social issues. In past PackPoll surveys, students have expressed greater conservative views about economic issues. Indeed, in this survey, most students opposed increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour. So, our issue selection can create a misleading picture. Second, greater support for Democrats’ social issues stances doesn’t result in identifying with that party if economic issues are more important for choosing which political party students identify with.
A Toplines report for all survey questions, and results, is available here: Big Poll Spring 2017 Toplines
NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: This semesters’ “Big Poll” took place February 14-18, 2017. The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 4,500 NCSU undergraduates and 876 completed the survey, generating a 19.5% response rate. Assuming a 50-50 division in opinion calculated at a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of sampling error for this survey is +/-3.25% when questions were answered by the full sample; sampling error increases for estimates when three or more choices were offered, when fewer respondents were asked a version of a question, or when analyzing the opinions of sub-groups, such as when looking just at how females responded to a question.
In addition to sampling error, other forms of non-sampling error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, and non-response bias (low response rates), but these types of error are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights for the slight demographic imbalance in gender because weighting the data would not have noticeable effects on the results.