Political Independents Are At A Record High. Political Independence Isn't.

04/07/2015 05:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

More Americans identify as political independents than ever before, but that doesn't mean their actual political views -- or the way they vote -- have changed much.

The percentage of Americans who don't identify with either major party is on the rise, with 39 percent now calling themselves independent -- the highest share in more than 75 years, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. The increase in independents has been especially sharp since 2004 and has mainly cut into the number of self-identified Republicans, which has fallen by 6 percentage points in the past decade.

But Americans' political leanings haven't shifted away from the parties dramatically -- or, really, at all. By many measures, we're more partisan than ever.

Eighty-seven percent still say they at least lean toward one party or the other, the report says. And functionally, there's very little difference between a particular party's members and the "closet partisans" who identify as independent but lean toward that party -- the two groups tend to share opinions and voting patterns. In 2008, about 80 percent of Republican leaners went for GOP presidential nominee John McCain, while 90 percent of Democratic leaners picked Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

With leaners added to the count, the report says, 48 percent of Americans side with the Democrats, and 39 percent with the Republicans. That's largely unchanged from previous years.

What the continuing growth in the percentage of independents may demonstrate is how unpopular both political parties have become.

A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party had a favorability rating above 40 percent.

"Parties have a bad reputation -- both major parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans -- and there’s something appealing about the idea of thinking independently rather than blindly supporting a party," political science professor Alan Abramowitz wrote early last year.

Other self-described independents may simply want to avoid being bothered by campaign operatives every two years.

Democrats have the numeric advantage over Republicans, but that doesn't necessarily translate into electoral victory, since the demographic groups that lean toward the right are overall more likely to vote. While Americans as a whole are 9 points more likely to identify as or lean toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, Democrats have just a 5-point advantage among registered voters, according to Pew.

Beyond the rising number of independents, the report shows that the political affiliations of most demographic groups haven't changed much in recent years. Some, however, have shifted. People with a college degree or more now lean toward the Democratic Party, a reversal from past years that is largely due to increasing Democratic support among those with post-graduate education. White evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, have moved even further toward the GOP, with 68 percent now identifying as Republican.

The Pew report draws on the analysis of 279 surveys, comprising more than 450,000 interviews, conducted between January 1992 and December 2014.

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