Independent Voters Rise as Parties Polarize

Americans are more divided than ever before in modern electoral history, finds a new study.

Even the least tuned-in observer of American politics can sense that the volume of supporters on both sides this election season has reached whole new levels, and now a new study confirms that Americans are more polarized than ever.

The survey analysis out of Florida Atlantic University and San Diego State University finds that more U.S. adults are identifying themselves as "strong Democratic" or "strong Republican," with fewer members of either party describing themselves as moderate. At the same time, the ranks of those calling themselves independents is growing, from roughly 30 percent in 1989 to 46 percent today.

Leading these trends are Millennials, the generation most likely to lean independent. Although nearly half of all adults in 2014 identified as independents, nearly 59 percent of Millennials surveyed described themselves as independents, an all-time high for both figures.

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Millennials are an exceptionally polarized generation, and they are also more conservative than either Gen X'ers or Boomers. This decade's high school seniors are 38 percent more likely to identify as conservative than their counterparts in the 1970s.

"Given young people's support for same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, it's surprising that more now identify as political conservatives," San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge said in statement. "It may be that the definition of what they consider conservative is changing."

The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, pooled and analyzed survey data from 1970 to 2015 of 10 million U.S. residents. Despite the breadth of the data, what eludes the researchers is an explanation for these trends.

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"While our data can't speak to the possible reasons this is happening, we speculate that the increase in the percentage of independents could reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the entrenchment of the two major U.S. parties," co-author Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University said.

A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research suggested that U.S. political polarization was tied to the deregulation of the television news industry in the 1990s.

The same year Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, researchers from Washington State University observed a change in polarization. The more television news a person consumed, the more extreme their place on the political spectrum.

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