Want to make a professional partisan really nervous? Ask him why the fastest growing demographic in American politics is the independent voter. It just doesn’t fit with the play-to-the-base Kool-Aid that political consultants have been drinking the past few years. Old school operatives love the political math that gives party activists disproportionate influence over the democratic process.
They are comfortable with the industrial age rules of politics – all smokestacks and silos, party registration rolls, and rubber chicken dinners. They don’t want to wake up to the way the information-age reality is changing politics. So they try to deny that the shift is even occurring. Denial doesn’t make it so – the numbers don’t lie.
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran for president, only 1.6% of Americans were registered as independents. Today, the number is estimated at 21.7% of registered voters, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, while self-identified independents now narrowly surpass Democrats or Republicans, according to the Gallup Poll. This is a sea change, and like most significant demographic trends, it is being driven from the bottom up.
Just ask Youngstown, Ohio’s Jay Williams, who, at 34, was elected in November as the first independent and African-American mayor of that Midwestern city, winning 52% of the vote in a six-way race. Why did Mr. Williams choose to run as an independent in this heavily Democratic city?
“There was a growing frustration with this unbridled loyalty to the Democratic Party … what I tapped into was that people were ready for change,” Mr. Williams says. “I couldn’t be painted in a corner by a party … I’m moderate to liberal on some issues, but conservative on many others. And I absolutely intend to capitalize on that political freedom. There is no expectation from the electorate other than to do what I think is best for the city …”
What you hear from this Gen-X mayor is an attitude echoed by many of our generation. We want freedom of choice. In every other aspect of American life, the idea that choice means picking between a stale “brand a” and “brand b” ended a long time ago. At a time when people have become accustomed to 500 cable channels and the endless variety of the Internet, we don’t want to have to choose between a pre-fabricated menu of special interest controlled positions.
Presidential candidates who study the campaign map for 2008 should keep in mind the following stats: In Iowa, 38.6% of voters are now registered independent; in New Hampshire, 85% of new voters are registering independent, according to its secretary of state. South Carolina does not register voters by party, but the governor and senior senator both supported John McCain for president in 2000, while neighboring North Carolina has seen its independent voters increase to more than a million from 290,000 in the last 12 years. New Jersey, whose primary looks like it might be pushed up in 2008, has 58.7% unaffiliated voters, while Arizona has fully 25% of its voters registered neither Republican nor Democrat. In the first slate of states likely to hold presidential primaries, independent voters are not only rising powers but also the key to victory.
In California, the number of independent voters has doubled since 1990 – to reach 2.9 million, or nearly 20% of the vote. An estimated 90% of all new voters in the Golden State are opting not to affiliate with either Democrats or Republicans, a trend that is even more pronounced among Hispanics. A recent article in Los Angeles Times estimated that if present trends continue, independents could outnumber Democrats or Republicans by 2025, explaining, “They’re more and more responsible for California’s growing reputation as a green and socially moderate – but also fiscally conservative – state.”
The nation’s second largest state, Texas, doesn’t register voters by party, but there are not one but two independents – Kinky Friedman and Carole Strayhorn – running for President Bush’s former position as governor, marking the first time since Samuel Houston that independents have stood for governor in the Lone Star State. In Florida and New York, unaffiliated voters represent 20% of the electorate in each state and 22 million votes combined.
The Beltway boys ignore independents at their peril. So why is this trend so under-reported? One way that the independent influence has been dismissed is the claim that it is an anarchic grab bag of political wing-nuts. Certainly the fact that both Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan have run left-and-right-wing protest candidacies under the independent banner has not helped. Polls show that when it comes to listing the nation’s most pressing priorities, independents consistently register between Democrats and Republicans, indicating a core commonsense centrism combined with a slight libertarian streak.
Independent voters are concerned about the current direction of the country, the strength of the economy, and the environment. They aren’t crazy about the way the war in Iraq has worked out so far, but overall, they are hawks in the war on terror. They place a high premium on privacy rights and personal freedom. They want to see more fiscal responsibility from Washington, demanding less pork-barrel spending, less harsh partisanship, and less debt passed on to the next generation.
What does this mean for 2006? According to a Pew poll released in March, 36% of independent voters said they don’t want their incumbent representative re-elected. This is two points higher than in October 1994, when the Republican Revolution knocked the Democratic majority out of power. Their support for Mr. Bush has declined to 26% today from 47% in January 2005. Independents are angry about corruption scandals in Congress, but 55% see it as a bipartisan problem. In a starkly contrasting display of situational ethics, 66% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats say they would want their member of Congress re-elected even if he or she has taken bribes from lobbyists.
The rise of independents represents a coherent reaction to the polarization of American politics. Faced with a choice between frequently warring and equally unrepresentative extremes, voters are increasingly opting out of the straitjacket of narrow partisanship as a matter of principle. The candidates that best understand independents’ instincts will be in the strongest position to forge their own majority coalition in the future.
As Mr. Williams said, “If we see a continuation of the two parties being controlled by two extremes, we will see more independents in the future.”