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Political Science Professor Casts Her Vote On the Independent Voice This Election

Yanna Krupnikov

As an associate professor of political science who has spent countless hours gaining insight into the minds and behaviors of voters, Yanna Krupnikov knows a lot about what goes into casting a ballot each Election Day.

With what is shaping up to be a historical, potentially transformative midterm election this year, Krupnikov, whose writings and research are spreading across academia, has focused on the independent vote. One of the important voices on November 6 will be those of independent voters, she said.

In fact, they are the voters to watch.  

Yanna Krupnikov
Professor Yanna Krupnikov speaks about implications of the 2016 presidential election at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. (Photo: Claire Meingast/The Michigan Daily)

The more so-called independents who show up, she said, the bigger the impact on government. Just what kind of impact that will be is still unclear.

“Predicting the role of independents is difficult, largely because many of the people who call themselves independents — likely the majority according to a number of recent surveys — are actually quite partisan,” Krupnikov said last week, just days before the highly anticipated voting takes place nationwide.

“This means that they always vote for one party, but may not want to admit that they are members of that party,” she added. “As a result, independents often aren’t really ‘up for grabs’ for both parties.”

Krupnikov, who is an expert on voter behavior in the Department of Political Science, College of Arts and Sciences, integrates psychology and political science in her research to identify points at which new information can affect the way people form political opinions, make political choices and, ultimately, take political actions. She recently shared her take on the role she imagines independent voters will play in the 2018 midterm elections.

Among some key observations, Krupnikov said, the big question with independents is turnout, as convincing independents to vote is pivotal in close elections. If independents are people who don’t feel comfortable admitting they are members of a particular party, she said, then they may not always be excited about voting for that party.

“The goal for parties is to convince independents to turn out and not turn away from politics,” Krupnikov said. “ Many independents were once people who publicly supported parties, so the challenge the parties face is to get them back.”    

Krupnikov is co-author of 2016’s Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction (Cambridge University Press), recipient of the Robert Lane Award for Best Book in Political Psychology, American Political Science Association 2017. A reference for understanding the current electoral environment, Independent Politics is already on political science classes’ reading lists around the country. It suggests that there are people who call themselves independents because they don’t want to admit they belong to a party.

Krupnikov and co-author Samara Klar, associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona, argue that this is because people don’t want to be part of the acrimony and fighting that seems to be associated with partisan politics.

“To see stronger party affiliations, we’d have to make ‘partisan’ an identity that is more attractive to the people who call themselves independents,” Krupnikov said. “These people want to be independent because that puts them above bitter partisan fighting — it is a much more positive identity. If partisanship became an identity that they viewed as desirable and positive, then these people would start to call themselves partisans again.”

The co-authors — which include John Barry Ryan, associate professor in the Department of Political Science —  also considered the issue of the growing number of independent voters potentially forming their own party movement, given their apparent disdain for both existing parties.

“Through our research, we found that people generally don’t like politics and partisanship, which means it’s not their goal to start another party,” Krupnikov said. “Also, we found that there is little similarity for a common Independent Party; people who are independent are part of a large group with very different goals and political beliefs.”

For example, some independents prefer liberal policies, while others lean conservative and others may have a more moderate approach.

Despite the growth in the number of independents, Krupnikov said she feels that parties are still a pivotal organizational force in our government; and to some extent, working within the party system is the best way to structure political position and mindset.

“Even if neither party perfectly aligns with your positions and ideas, often one party comes much closer than the other party to representing the things you might care about,” she said.

As for whether the independent voter movement is a good thing for the country, Krupnikov said that while it’s a difficult question to answer, it would be a positive development if more people put thought into why they support a party.

“People should be questioning why and whether they can support everything that a party stands for,” she said. “If describing oneself as independent is due to that type of reasoning, then I think it could be beneficial for the way people relate to politics.”

It’s that kind of insight to political psychology that has made Krupnikov an important voice in the politically charged world of government and law.

“Given her wide-ranging knowledge on American politics, Professor Krupnikov is one of the bright stars among our faculty,” said Matthew Lebo, chair of the Department of Political Science. “In particular, her expertise on voter behavior in the U.S. is invaluable for understanding today’s political environment. Our students are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from her.”

— Rachel Rodriguez

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