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A Declaration of Independents?

When pundits reference political "independents," the label doesn't always mean what they think it means.
A voter casts her electronic ballot, Nov. 4, 2014 at her precinct in Madison, Miss. (Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
A voter casts her electronic ballot Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 at her precinct in Madison, Miss. While much attention this year has been focused on the U.S....
For independent-minded pundits, eager to blame "both sides" even when it doesn't make sense, yesterday was a day of celebration and gloating. The New York Daily News reported, for example, on the historic low of Americans "who identify with either of the two major political parties."

Only 29% of those surveyed in a new Gallup poll said they identified as Democrats — the lowest level in 27 years. On the other hand, only 26% of those surveyed identified as Republicans, just one percentage point above the prior low taken by Gallup in 2013. Another 42% of those polled said they identify as political independents, indicating that a growing number of Americans feel they have less and less in common with either major party.

If it hasn't already, results like these will likely spark a new round of chatter about how "the American people" are rejecting the major parties, looking for a new kind of politics that moves away from partisan and ideological extremes.
And much of that chatter will be wrong.
The problem is that the "independent" label has, in practical terms, no real meaning. It's widely assumed that self-identified independents see themselves as moderate/centrist voters with no use for the two major parties. As the argument goes, the left sides with Democrats, the right sides with Republicans, which leaves independents in the middle.
It's a tidy little summary, but it's not true. The Monkey Cage's John Sides published a piece several years ago that doesn't appear to be online anymore, but it continues to ring true.

[H]ere is the problem: Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter. When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the "independent leaners." ... The number of pure independents is actually quite small -- perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s. [...] The significance of independent leaners is this: they act like partisans.... There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans.

Gallup's report yesterday added that most of the Americans who describe themselves as independent actually lean towards one party or the other.
So why do so many Americans bother with the label? Perhaps the most important thing to understand about independents is that there are so many different kinds of independents. Some are on the far-left or the far-right, and see the major parties as too moderate. Some are closet partisans who get a personal sense of satisfaction from the independent label, using it as a synonym for being "open-minded" or a "free-thinker."
New York magazine's Ed Kilgore flagged an analysis from last year that found just 5% of the overall electorate meets "the standard, commonly-used definition of an Independent: voters who do not identify with a party and at the same time place themselves ideologically between Democrats and Republicans."
That's a far cry from 42%.
When the usual suspects tout the latest Gallup numbers, keep these details in mind.