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Who Are Leaners? How True Independents Differ from the Weakest Partisans and Why It Matters

Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan
From the journal The Forum


Independents who lean toward a party constitute a plurality of Americans. Despite their reluctance to identify as partisans, scholars find that “leaners” look much like partisans with respect to their voting behavior, civic engagement, and policy preferences. Yet, existing literature does not consider the possibility that different factors lead Democrats and Republicans to opt for an independent label. We consider heterogeneity in what leads people to report that they are “leaners” and we identify important partisan differences. By introducing a novel survey measure administered on a large adult sample, we identify both the motivation for, and consequence of, identifying as a leaner. Our results reveal that modern-day Republican leaners are largely motivated by a dissatisfaction with their own party. They are ideologically more moderate and are subsequently less willing to support their party’s candidate. Democratic leaners, on the other hand, appear satisfied with their party’s ideology and candidates, but nevertheless value an independent label. Our work suggests that partisan identification is both expressive and politically contextual. Our study provides an important step in identifying distinct motivations and electoral consequences within this large and growing segment of Americans.

Corresponding author: Samara Klar, Associate Professor, School of Government & Public Policy, University of Arizona, Arizona, USA, E-mail:


A1. Demographics
% Democrat 42.74
% Independent leaning to democrat 7.38
% Independent 7.81
% Independent leaning to republican 7.32
% Republican 34.74
% Female 50.27
% White 73.11
% College degree 47.39
Mean age 44.79

A2. Question Wording

Generally speaking, are you a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent?

Strong Democrat

Weak Democrat

Independent leaning to Democrat


Independent leaning to Republican

Weak Republican

Strong Republican.

What is your age? [open-ended]

What is your gender?




With what race do you primarily identify with?


Black or African American

Hispanic or Latino


Middle Eastern

Native American


What is the highest level of education that you have completed?

High School

Some College

Completed College

Graduate School.

Thinking again about your political identity, which best describes you?

Strongest Democrat


Weakest Democrat


Weakest Republican


Strongest Republican.

Would you say you approve or disapprove of the job that President Trump is doing?

Strongly approve

Somewhat approve

Neither approve nor disapprove

Somewhat disapprove

Strongly disapprove.

In the 2020 Presidential Election, do you think you’ll vote for President Trump, for the Democratic nominee, for someone else, or not at all?


Democratic Nominee

Someone Else

Not at all.


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Published Online: 2022-06-21

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