In modern-day Texas (and the country as a whole), a lot of ordinary people like to think of themselves as political independents. It's hard to know exactly how this came to be, but part of the story almost certainly goes back to the turbulent decades of the mid-to-late 20th century, when being a member or supporter of one of the two main political parties became decidedly uncool in much of American society. Instead, it became substantially cooler for someone to say that he marches to the beat of his own drum, calls the races as they come, and does not owe allegiance to any political entity.
But do the majority of Texans who call themselves independents actually behave that way at the polls? The inaugural UT/Texas Tribune poll provides a decisive answer to that question: No. Party identification in the poll is measured in two steps. First, respondents are asked whether they consider themselves to be a Democrat, Republican, independent, other, or are not sure. If a respondent answers that she is a Democrat or Republican, she is next asked if she considers herself a "strong Democrat" or a "not very strong Democrat." If a respondent answers that she is an independent, she is then asked if she leans toward one party or the other or is a pure independent.
Of all of the self-described independents in the UT/TT poll, only 33% answered that they are pure independents who do not lean toward one party or the other; 27% of self-described "independents" in the sample acknowledged that they lean toward the Democratic Party, and 40% acknowledged that they lean toward Republicans.
It is even more interesting, however, to compare the responses of "independent" leaners to self-described Democrats or Republicans whose allegiance to their respective parties is not very strong. For example, in a hypothetical match-up general election matchup between Rick Perry, an unnamed Democratic nominee, and an unnamed third-party nominee, 61% of "independents" who lean Republican responded that they would support Rick Perry, compared to 46% of "not very strong Republicans." Similarly, 65% of "independents" who lean Democratic responded that they would support the Democratic candidate, as opposed to 61% of "not very strong Democrats." Examining Barack Obama's job approval numbers, 88% of independents who "lean Republican" strongly disapprove of the president's performance thus far, compared with just 59% of "not very strong Republicans." Likewise, 42% of "independents" who lean Democratic strongly approve of Obama's performance, as opposed to just 22% of "not very strong Democrats." Similar results can be found in other approval and horse race items that were examined, as well as in various policy questions that were included in the poll. In numerous instances, the "independent" leaners expressed more explicitly partisan positions than the weak partisans.
The upshot of all of this is clear, and it probably makes intuitive sense as well: when you meet a Texan (or an American from somewhere else) who calls himself a political independent, the chances are pretty good that he is quite a bit more partisan than he might initially let on. While the notion of political independence might comport with his self-image, his policy views, opinion of politicians, and voting record likely tell a different tale.
Adam Myers has been research assistant for the UT-Austin Texas Statewide Poll since the summer of 2008. He is a graduate student in the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin, and assisted in the analysis on this poll.