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Ideology and California’s Independent Voters

David Kordus January 13, 2016
California flag and ballot box

Nearly one in four California voters are registered with “no party preference,” and the share of these voters—commonly known as independents—has more than doubled over the past twenty years. Does the growing number of independent voters mean that California’s electorate is becoming less polarized?

Data from the PPIC Statewide Survey suggests that independent voters do not speak with one voice, and they are not, as a rule, more moderate than partisans. In our 2015 surveys, the overwhelming majority of independents say they lean toward either the Democratic Party (41%) or the Republican Party (30%), and these voters often share the views of the party they lean toward.

For example, independents who say they lean toward the Democratic Party are about as likely as registered Democrats to call themselves politically liberal. Similarly, most Republican-leaning independents and registered Republicans call themselves politically conservative. The only group of independents who stand out as more politically moderate than partisan voters are the ones who lean toward neither party—a majority of these independents call themselves politically middle-of-the-road.

Political differences among independents also show up in responses to survey questions about specific issues. On immigration, Republican-leaning independents line up with registered Republicans in saying that overall, immigrants are a burden to California (55% and 61%), while solid majorities of both Democratic-leaning independents and registered Democrats say immigrants are a benefit to the state (80% and 72%). Regarding the taxation of oil extraction in California, Democratic-leaning independents and registered Democrats are in favor (61% and 55%), while Republican-leaning independents and registered Republicans are opposed (70% and 60%). Finally, majorities of Democratic-leaning independents and registered Democrats would prefer to use state budget surpluses to restore funding for social services (52% and 56%), while majorities of Republican-leaning independents and registered Republicans would prefer to pay down debt and build up reserves (73% and 76%).

These findings show that the 24 percent of California voters who are registered as independents do not all occupy the political center—and that these voters often diverge sharply from one another in their political ideologies and their opinions about specific issues.

Chart Source (TOP): Registration totals for Democrats, Republicans, independents, and other parties are from the California Secretary of State. The shares of independents who lean toward the Democratic Party, Republican Party, or neither party are estimated using PPIC survey data.

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