Independent voters, once a political afterthought, are now the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American electorate.
This shift led to the nomination of two candidates who ran against the polarizing establishments of their own parties, while preaching the need to reach across the red-state/blue-state divide. Now independent voters may determine who is elected president.
Forty-three percent of undecided swing voters are independents and 47% are centrists, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Independent voters have been on the rise while the parties have been playing to a shrinking base. This is a generational change. There are now six states where independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats—the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire as well as New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Key battleground states this year such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina each have more than one million independent voters. In California, Florida and Nevada, the number of independent voters has increased more than 300% in the past 20 years, while Democratic and Republican registration has flatlined.
Back in 1954, only 22% of voters identified themselves as independents, according to the American National Election Survey. Fifty years later the number was nearly double. Now, two out of five Americans can’t name anything they like about the Democrats, and 50% say the same about Republicans. What happened?
As the two parties grew more ideologically polarized amid the culture conflicts of the 1960s, centrist voters felt politically homeless. First, there was realignment in the form of Reagan Democrats, and then de-alignment as centrist voters declared their independence from the far-right and the far-left. The modern independent movement kicked into high gear with Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign. Promising to balance the budget and reform the corrupt partisan system in Washington, Mr. Perot briefly led in the polls and managed to win 19% of the vote.
Throughout the 1990s, the independent movement kept growing while Democrats and Republicans warred in Washington. Three independent governors were elected: Angus King of Maine, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. All spread the same essential reform message: independence from special interests guided by a common-sense balance of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.
The momentum continued this decade with the election of Sen. Joe Lieberman, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the independent-in-all-but-name California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This is the new mainstream in American politics, and it’s growing among younger voters. More than 40% of college undergraduates identify themselves as independents, according to a summer 2008 survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP). “Half of young Americans do not identify with traditional party or ideological labels—they are the new center in American politics,” says John Della Volpe of IOP.
This trend extends to 30- to 45-year-old Generation X voters as well, says the author of “X Saves the World,” Jeff Gordinier: “Gen Xers tend to be pretty post-ideological and pragmatic, there is less allegiance to any one party or any one way of thinking.”
For Americans who’ve grown accustomed to hundreds of cable channels and unlimited choices on the Internet, politics is the last place people are expected to be satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.
Professional partisans in Washington try to ignore this shift, perpetuating the myth that the independent movement is a chaotic grab bag. In fact, the movement has a coherent set of underlying beliefs: Independents tend to be fiscally conservative, socially progressive and strong on national security. They believe in putting patriotism over partisanship and the national interest over special interests.
One year ago, while Republicans named terrorism as their No. 1 issue and Democrats pointed to health care, independents were already feeling the squeeze of the economy. They want a return to fiscal responsibility.
A 2007 study of independents by the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation showed they are not swayed by social-conservative issues. Independents were more likely than either Republicans or Democrats to agree that abortion should be legal in most (but not all) cases, and that same-sex couples should be allowed to legally form civil unions, but not to marry.
The top targets of independents’ anger are illustrative—hypocritical politicians, pork-barrel projects and a lack of bipartisan solutions in Washington, according to a 2008 national survey of independents by TargetPoint Consulting. Then there’s the Bush administration. Independents believe the current president is the worst in recent history, but there is one area of policy overlap: 66% of independent voters believe that the U.S. has an obligation to establish security in Iraq before withdrawing.
Looking at this profile, it’s easy to see why John McCain is outperforming the Republican brand. Mr. McCain’s credibility with independents comes from his principled independence and record of forging bipartisan coalitions. Barack Obama’s appeal to independents is rooted in his promise to transcend the left/right, black/white debates. He beat Hillary Clinton 2-1 among independents.
Throughout the summer, independents split their support evenly between Messrs. McCain and Obama, with high approval ratings for both candidates. After the Republican convention in September, independents broke for Mr. McCain by a 15-point margin and he surged in swing state polls. But the recent financial crisis increased economic anxiety among moderates and the middle class, making the election a referendum on the Bush administration. Independents swung to Mr. Obama. Colin Powell’s endorsement will validate the decision for many independents.
The next president will inherit the oval office at a time of economic turmoil, with a combustible combination of high expectations and an angry electorate. But the next president can unite the country even in difficult times if he understands this truth: Americans are not deeply divided—our political parties are—and the explosive growth of independent voters is a direct reaction to this disconnect.