As our country's politicians engage in bitter partisan battles, focused on protecting their own jobs but not on doing the nation's business, and political pundits shout louder and shriller to improve their ratings, it's no wonder that Americans have little faith in their government. But is America as divided as the politicians and talking heads would have us believe? Do half of Americans stand on the right and the other half on the left with a no-man's-land between them?
Hardly. Forty percent of all American voters are Independents who occupy the ample political and ideological space in the center. These Americans are anything but divided, and they're being ignored. These Independents make up the largest voting bloc in the nation and have determined the outcome of every election since World War II. Every year their numbers grow, as does the unconscionable disconnect between them and the officials who are supposed to represent them.
The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents tells the story of how our polarized political system is not only misrepresenting America but failing it. Linda Killian looks beyond the polls and the headlines and talks with the frustrated citizens who are raising the alarm about the acute bi-polarity, special interest-influence, and gridlock in Congress, asking why Obama's postpartisan presidency is anything but, and demanding realism, honest negotiation, and a sense of responsibility from their elected officials.
Killian paints a vivid portrait of the swing voters around the country and presents a new model that reveals who they are and what they want from their government and elected officials. She also offers a way forward, including solutions for fixing our broken political system. This is not only a timely shot across the bows of both parties but an impassioned call to Independents to bring America back into balance.
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About the Author
Linda Killian is a journalist and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has been a columnist for Politico, U.S. News&World Report.com, and Politics Daily. She has also written for The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other national publications. She is the author of The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution? She lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
Who Are the Independent Voters?
A government of our own is our natural right.
NINETY-YEAR-OLD BETTY Hall lives in the 1850s farmhouse in Brookline, New Hampshire, where her grandmother was born. After graduating from Barnard College in 1943, working as an engineer with the Western Electric Company during World War II, and getting married, she returned to New Hampshire with her husband to start a textile manufacturing company and raise their five children.
Back then, only about eight hundred people lived in Brookline, which is about fifteen miles west of Nashua, and Hall’s children were educated in the town’s two-room schoolhouse. She felt the school needed improvement and better resources and decided to try to do something about it, so she ran for town school board and then selectman, explaining her reason for getting into politics.
She started out as a Republican. Most people in New Hampshire were. She first got elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1970 and served a total of twenty-eight years. “Liberal Republicans were fairly common then. I had a lot of great liberal Republican colleagues, but eventually they got pushed out.” In the 1980s, she found she was voting more often with the Democrats so she decided to change her party registration and was reelected to the legislature as a Democrat. But eventually she realized, “I was so sick of both parties, I decided I was going to be an Independent and escape from them telling me how to vote because I felt the most important thing was the responsibility to my constituents.”
Four years ago, she officially became an Independent and made a couple of unsuccessful runs for the state legislature in 2008 and 2010. “I called myself an Independent moderate. I knew the odds were going to be against me.”
Looking and sounding much younger than her ninety years, Hall recalls some of her political experiences, like the time she ran for a state senate seat by riding her bicycle one thousand miles around the district to campaign door-to-door. When President George W. Bush came to New Hampshire to speak in 2004, she protested outside the event with a sign that said BUSH IS BAD FOR AMERICA. A pen had been set up for protestors, but Hall refused to stay behind the barriers, and authorities arrested her and charged her with disorderly conduct. “They wanted me to do a plea bargain for twelve hours of community service, but I said no—I was not disorderly and I was going to defend myself. The judge totally exonerated me.” Hall was a member of the legislature at the time and introduced a bill to impeach Bush. “Don’t you think that didn’t stir up a hornet’s nest,” she says with a laugh.
“They call me a firebrand. Nobody knows what to make of me,” says Hall, who is something of a true New England eccentric. She says her children, along with twelve grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, “kill themselves laughing at me, but they’re very supportive of what I’m doing.”
Her hero and role model is Doris “Granny D” Haddock, the political activist who at the age of eighty-eight began walking across the United States to advocate for campaign finance reform. Granny D’s march took more than a year and ended in Washington, D.C., in 2000. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain–Feingold for its two sponsors, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, passed two years later.
In 2004, at the age of ninety-four, Granny D became the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire against incumbent Republican Judd Gregg, a campaign that was the subject of an HBO documentary called Run Granny Run. Granny D died in 2010 at the age of one hundred.
Hall says she is trying to follow in Granny D’s footsteps and is a strong supporter of election reform. “If the primaries were reformed, maybe there would be hope for the two parties. The whole system—the primary system—is functionally bankrupt. The only candidates that can prevail in a primary have to have tons of money. It’s all about money. I don’t like that the parties can tell people how to vote, and if they don’t toe the party line they won’t get elected again, because they won’t get the money and the party support.”
Using what she has learned from her many years in politics, Hall’s mission now is to push for more campaign-finance and election-law reform and encourage more Independent candidates to run for office.
“I’m not afraid to speak truth to power. I’ve always been a maverick. I’m going to live to be a hundred years old and I’m going to give them trouble all the way.”
Dr. James Squires was a moderate Republican all his life. The seventy-three-year-old retired physician lives in Hollis, a town of about seven thousand people in southeastern New Hampshire on the Massachusetts border. For twenty years, he has been the moderator of the annual town meeting, a New England tradition that began with the first Puritan settlers even before the United States was founded and which represents the purest form of democracy. Citizens gather in the spring to take up matters of interest to the town and to debate and approve the town budget. Anyone can speak, and everyone has the same vote.
Squires was elected to the state senate in 1996 and served for four years. “I kept trying to maintain that I was there to represent everyone in the state, not just the party that nominated me.” When he ran for reelection, Squires faced a primary challenge on the right. “I was confused, thinking there might be some middle ground in the Republican Party, but it was going away. The Republican Party moved past me to some new place I didn’t understand or agree with.”
In 2000, Squires ran for governor but lost the Republican nomination to a much more conservative candidate who was defeated in the general election. “The Republicans have made a mistake in being so extreme and exclusionary,” Squires believes. In a state where a majority of voters, like Squires, are pro-choice and favor gay marriage rights, the Republican Party demands complete allegiance and opposition to those positions.
“We’re becoming so polarized, there isn’t any room for a middle ground. My political philosophy is not based on ideology—I’m more pragmatic. I think each issue needs to be looked at and evaluated.”
Two years ago, Squires became what New Hampshire calls an “undeclared” voter, joining many moderate Republicans who have become Independents.
* * *
Scott Clinger is a forty-seven-year-old policeman in Columbus, Ohio, born and raised not far from where he lives now. He served in the Marine Corps for ten years before joining the force. His wife is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve got two grown children. She’s a Democrat, but he has always considered himself an Independent.
In 1984, he voted for Ronald Reagan. He liked Reagan’s vision of a strong America, and a strong military is important to him. He voted for George Bush in 1988 and ’92, but went for Bill Clinton in 1996. “I was happy with him. The main thing was that we had a balanced budget and a surplus.”
He voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and says, “That was a mistake.” In 2004, he voted for John Kerry. “When we invaded Iraq, I thought it was the worst thing ever—the dumbest thing we had ever done. I knew how expensive and long it would be.”
In 2008, Clinger liked McCain and says it was a tough choice for him. “I think the country was going in the wrong direction under George Bush. When McCain picked Sarah Palin, at first I thought she sounded pretty sparky, but then when she started talking, you said, ‘Oh my gosh, she doesn’t know anything.’
“I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on Obama, but I thought we did need some sort of change.” Clinger credits Obama for getting Osama bin Laden, but he’s not sure if he will vote for him again. “I have to look at who runs against him.”
Clinger says he likes to vote for both Democrats and Republicans because “I like to see balance—it forces them to come together and maybe come up with a better plan. With what’s been happening—it’s like the parties have gone just crazy. I don’t get why they can’t work with each other.”
As a member of a two-union household, Clinger is very concerned about the anti-union efforts around the country and especially the passage in Ohio of Senate Bill 5, which strips public unions of their collective bargaining rights. He says it would never have happened if the Republicans didn’t control both houses of the legislature and the governorship.
Depending on what kind of cuts take place as a result, he said he’s worried about being able to afford his mortgage payments. “This is nothing but a union-busting bill.” Clinger has never been politically active before, but now he spends weekends with his wife collecting signatures on petitions to repeal SB 5. Many union members in Ohio like Clinger have voted Republican in the past, but he thinks the Republicans “have committed political suicide.”
Ryan Ayers, thirty, and Allen Wells, thirty-one, live in Canton, Ohio, and have known each other since high school. I met them during the 2010 campaign at the North Canton Community Center, where they were attending a town hall meeting featuring the two candidates for Congress in Ohio’s Sixteenth District. Ayers and Wells are both married. Wells has three children and works at a factory that builds furnaces and electromagnets for steel mills. Ayers, a quality manager at a structural steel fabrication company, was expecting a baby.
Both men described themselves as Independent voters who lean to the right but vote for both Democrats and Republicans. Ayers is a member of the National Rifle Association. In 2008, they both voted for John McCain for president and for John Boccieri, the Democratic candidate, for Congress. Two years later, they were unhappy with the Democratic Congress and on the fence about whether Boccieri deserved another term. Ultimately, Wells voted for Republicans Jim Renacci for Congress and Rob Portman for Senate but supported Democrat Ted Strickland for reelection to the Ohio governorship. Ayers voted mostly for Republicans, including John Kasich for governor, a vote he said he regretted a few months after the election.
Wells was happy at first that the Republicans won the U.S. House and the Democrats held on to the Senate because he thought it might force the two parties to work together. But by the spring of 2011, he had become pessimistic. “It’s the same as usual in my opinion, they’re just putting on a big dog and pony show and not doing anything.… The Republicans don’t want government to do anything, and the Democrats want the government to do everything.… I don’t see much change. I hope they’re going to get this out of their system and start to work together.
“Most people you talk to, they think the election was about listening to what the voters have to say,” said Wells. “We were trying to tell the Democrats to slow down and listen to other views, but it wasn’t just a total endorsement of Republican conservative positions.”
“The American people have just had enough. They’re tired,” said Ayers. “Politicians are out of touch with us and they’re not listening to what we want. I don’t feel that the politicians really do what’s best for us.… In my household—you only pull in so much money. You can’t spend more than you bring in. The government can’t sustain deficit spending for a long time. They’ve been spending and spending and spending, and we’ve got to rein that in. We’ve got to concentrate on our own country, developing our own infrastructure to get people back to work.” Ayers lost one job when the plant he was working at moved from Ohio to North Carolina.
“The economy is the biggest thing right now, it’s hitting us hard in Ohio,” said Wells. “I’d like to see them sit down and look at trade agreements with other countries. There’s got to be a way to bring domestic jobs back.… Let’s hit companies that keep moving jobs overseas, hit them with a tariff or tax incentive to create jobs and punish them for sending jobs overseas.… But I think the American people have to step up too and say we’re buying only American-made stuff—instead of buying cheap stuff made in China at Walmart.”
“We need a true swing party,” Ayers believes. “I was hoping the Tea Party would do it, but they’ve gone too far to the right.” Having viable Independent candidates would make a difference, “but they don’t have funding or a way to get their names out.”
Even though neither of them voted for Obama in 2008, they were somewhat pleased with what they perceived as his course correction after the midterm election.
“I think he’s gone more than halfway,” said Wells. “I look at my job, and if they tell me I’m doing something wrong, I’m going to change—I’m not going to keep doing it my way and risk getting fired. I’m going to do what I need to do to keep my job. The voters are his boss.”
“This election was a wake-up call,” said Ayers. “It was ‘do what your constituents want or we’re going to get rid of you.’”
* * *
Twenty-five-year-old Adam Gray lives in Broomfield, Colorado, located between Denver and Boulder. He’s an engineer who works for a small composite technology company that does advanced applications for the aerospace industry with clients including NASA and the Department of Defense.
Like so many young people, he moved to Colorado to attend college and never left. His parents are Republicans, and Gray says he started out as a Republican, voting for George W. Bush and John McCain for president, but then became an Independent. In 2010, he voted for Democrat John Hickenlooper for governor. “I thought when I first started to vote that you had to pick a side, but I got a little older and found myself disappointed with both sides.”
Gray says he is more economically Republican but more socially Democratic. “This whole debt thing scares the hell out of me.… People my age get it. You’re just starting out on your own, you know you can’t spend more than you make. It’s something most people my age can relate to—not overspending your bank account.”
Gray is pro-choice, and believes gays should have the right to marry. “I think those are human rights,” he explains. He watches Fox News, but also likes to check out the websites of CNN and the BBC. Like a lot of young people, he also picks up a lot of his political ideas from talking with his friends.
He doesn’t understand why there should be only two parties in the United States and has some frustration about being a registered Independent because “You don’t really have a voice if you don’t side with one of the two big dogs.”
But he is sick of what he sees going on in Washington. “There’s no real compromise. It’s like this tug-of-war match—it’s not constructive. It’s all a power play.”
Gray has friends who worked on the Obama campaign who now say they are a bit disappointed, and he thinks “the Obama sheen has worn off.” When I ask if he can see himself voting for a Democrat for president, he instantly responds, “Oh, sure,” and says what he is really looking for in a candidate is, “Someone willing to admit their mistakes. I really hate that no one owns up to any mistake they make. I really want someone to be honest, tell it straight, and move forward. Candidates always make the safe play. I’d like to see someone just throwing it out there.”
Jeanna Grasso, who lives in Denver, is a twenty-nine-year-old single mother of a six-year-old boy. She says she has already had some ups and downs in her life. Her father is a carpenter, and the grandmother who raised her is a receptionist at a car dealership. She took time off when her son was born to be with him but has since gone back to school at the University of Colorado–Denver and was on track to finish her political science degree in 2011.
She knows a lot of people who are unemployed and looking for work, and she is worried about finding a job when she graduates. She has been an Independent voter since she first registered to vote at eighteen and says it’s because she has both liberal and conservative views. Some of her family members supported Ross Perot when he ran for president, and she says her favorite politicians are Bill Clinton and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Grasso mostly votes for Democrats, although she’s not always sure exactly what they stand for and usually doesn’t think the options offered by either party are all that good.
I first met Grasso a few weeks before the 2010 election when she participated in a focus group I held in Denver and she expressed very negative feelings about Congress. “I don’t feel a connection between them and real people. I definitely don’t think they’re relatable,” she told me.
Grasso is concerned about the corrupting influence of money in politics and thinks being in Congress is “a purchased job. Who spends a hundred million dollars to get a job that pays a hundred fifty thousand? There’s a reason why.
“All they are concerned about is, How do I stay in office? They are worried about protecting themselves and making sure they have a job rather than doing what’s right.”
* * *
Michael Sciulla is a sixty-year-old retired lobbyist who lives in Vienna, Virginia, in the suburbs just outside Washington, D.C. He’s married, with two teenage children, and says he has been an Independent all his life. In 1980, he voted for John Anderson, an Independent candidate who was running for president. Usually, when he’s trying to decide whom to vote for, Sciulla feels like he is forced to pick “the lesser of two evils.”
“Economically I should be voting Republican, but I can’t seem to do it because of their social agenda and their hypocrisy about the budget deficit and all of the spending they did for all of those years.”
As a lobbyist, Sciulla ran a political action committee (PAC) and says, “I gave out thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and I became so disgusted with the system, I threw up my hands and got out.” Sciulla says he thinks both parties are more interested in getting and holding on to power than in working on real solutions, and the cost of campaigns and the fund-raising politicians have to do to finance them are some of the biggest problems with the system.
Even though a lot of his friends and neighbors make their living working for or with the government, Sciulla says most of them, no matter their political philosophy, believe government spending and waste, fraud, and abuse are huge problems.
Sciulla says he thinks most people voted for Barack Obama because they wanted hope and change and “We haven’t had much of either and that is so disappointing.
“Politics is an emotional sport as well as an intellectual endeavor. There’s a keg of dynamite under a lot of people, and it can be set off if provided the right match.”
* * *
Fifty-two-year-old Sue Thomas lives in Great Falls, Virginia, another Washington suburb. She has two children and owns a small company that does information technology management consulting. Her husband works in government relations.
She considers herself a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Independent. She votes in general elections but not in primaries. “I really feel like I’m representative of the nonpolitical American who has a business and a family and cares about what things mean for their parents and children and who’s looking around and says this political system doesn’t make sense to me.” Her family has had some serious health issues, and Thomas is very aware of the problems with our health care system and the crisis that comes with not having health insurance.
Thomas voted for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but says, “He was not my first or second choice, but I didn’t feel comfortable with McCain.” She thinks Hillary Clinton has done a terrific job as Secretary of State and likes Virginia Senator Mark Warner for his business background and also because “He’s willing to step out there and work with Republicans on the right way to tackle the deficit. I’m really glad that he’s my senator. I would like to see more people acting like Warner.”
Thomas thought it was “stupid” that the government almost shut down last year and says it just proved “it’s all about the parties” and that politicians aren’t really working for the country. “The notion of fair is lost right now, it’s about labels, it’s about reelection, and it’s about campaign contributions.”
* * *
These are the Independent/Swing voters.
They are not reliably conservative or liberal. Many of them never registered with a party and have been Independent voters their entire lives. Others are former Republicans and Democrats who became disaffected with the parties because of social or economic policies. Many Independents say they have been driven from the two parties by their extremism and a failure to focus on the nation’s most important issues. Independent voters think the parties care more about winning elections than about solving the nation’s problems, and they have largely lost faith in the two-party system. Nearly two-thirds of these voters say they believe both parties care more about special interests than about average Americans.1
These voters swing back and forth, supporting candidates from both parties, often in the same election. They live all over the country but are most important and sought after when they reside in swing states that also move back and forth from the Democratic to Republican column—especially the battleground states of New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania. In closely contested elections, their votes usually determine the winner. The 2000 presidential contest was famously one of the closest elections in U.S. history with Al Gore winning the popular vote and, after a partial recount in Florida, George W. Bush winning the electoral vote and the state of Florida by fewer than one thousand votes. In 2008, Barack Obama carried North Carolina by only fourteen thousand votes and Virginia by a little more than five thousand votes.2 In congressional and local elections, the margin of victory can be as low as triple and even double digits in tight races in swing districts.
The number of Independent voters, along with their disaffection with the two-party political system, is growing exponentially. About 40 percent of all American voters now call themselves Independents, which is a bigger group than those who say they are either Democrats or Republicans and is the largest number of Independent voters in seventy years3. In some states, Independents are a majority of the voters.
Polling by various organizations from Gallup to Pew verifies the significance and growth of the Independent voters. The American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan has been charting voting behavior and party identification in this country since 1952. Back then, about 25 percent of those polled identified themselves as Independent or Independent leaning. In 2008, the figure was up to 40 percent.4 The Pew Research Center in its most recent surveys also puts the number of Independents at around 40 percent.5
Among these Independent voters, about half say they have not thought of themselves as either a Democrat or Republican in the last five years.6 I believe this figure comes close to the true number of Independent/Swing voters in this country—about 20 percent of the electorate. And the role of this 20 percent of swing voters, especially in recent presidential elections, has been critical. Every election since World War II has been determined by voters in the middle. They are the voters who cast their ballots on issues and in favor of the candidate rather than for the party; and it is these voters who determine who will be president and which party will control Congress.
These are the voters who elected Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, roughly a third of the voters were swing voters.7 They also elected Barack Obama. The margin by which Obama carried the Independent vote in crucial swing states around the country was one of the significant factors in his victory and will undoubtedly be critical to whether or not he is reelected. Obama carried 60 percent of the “moderate” vote, which made up 44 percent of the electorate in 2008.8
The Republican victories in the 2010 midterm election were also decided by these voters. Independents supported Democrats by 18 points in 2006. But driven by their concern about the nation’s economy and strong opposition to Democratic spending and health care initiatives, they supported Republican congressional candidates in 2010 by the overwhelming margin of 56 to 38 percent, a 36-point swing from 2006.9 These Independent voters cannot all be classified as one thing or said to have all the same interests and views. They are diverse in age, race, gender, and income level. But I have divided them into four distinct and important demographic groups which comprise most of the Independent/Swing voters.
Those voters who are socially moderate and fiscally conservative and who used to be known as Rockefeller Republicans became Independents because of a growing disaffection with their natural party home. These were traditional, socially moderate, country club Republicans named because their political philosophy was in line with New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican who supported abortion rights and many other socially liberal positions and declared, “I do not believe it right for one group to impose its vision of morality on an entire society.” But Rockefeller has been dead for more than thirty years, and it is time for a new label for these voters. I call them NPR Republicans. Betty Hall and James Squires of New Hampshire are examples of NPR Republicans, and many of them can be found in New England, especially in New Hampshire. These voters moved away from the GOP in large numbers during the George W. Bush years because of the war in Iraq, Republican overspending, and what they perceived to be their party’s general mismanagement of the government and a loss of focus on important issues. They were also turned off by the GOP’s alignment with the religious right and its conservative stands on social issues like abortion and gay rights. The NPR Republicans tend to be affluent, well-educated, older voters. They believe in balancing the budget and holding the line on tax increases, but they also believe the government should stay out of people’s personal lives. Although there are many NPR Republicans in New England, they can be found all over the country. Increasingly, these voters are being driven out of the Republican Party and out of political office by primary challenges from the right and by those who want the GOP to be a conservative, ideologically pure party.
Another group of Independent/Swing voters is the group I call America First Democrats. They used to be known as Reagan Democrats, but just like the moniker Rockefeller Republicans, that title is also outdated. While many in this group admired Reagan and his call for a strong America, many others are too young to have had the chance to vote for Ronald Reagan and were just children when he was president. The America First Democrats are largely male, working- and middle-class voters who are concentrated in the Midwest and Rust Belt of the country. Scott Clinger, Ryan Ayers, and Allen Wells of Ohio are America First Democrats. It would make more economic sense for America First Democrats to be solidly aligned with the Democratic Party. Republican taxation and trade policies have put the squeeze on them and the rest of the middle class in recent decades. But they perceive a reluctance on the part of many Democrats to stand up for traditional American values both at home and abroad and usually tend to be more conservative than the Democratic Party on social issues. They lean toward populism, and are more protectionist, more religious, and more socially conservative than the NPR Republicans. They voted in large numbers for Bill Clinton, and many supported Hillary for president. Because they are persuadable and are often ticket splitters, they are actively pursued by both Republican and Democratic strategists and candidates.
Another significant Independent voter demographic are those under thirty-five—which includes a portion of what is often referred to as Generation X along with Generation Y—or the Millennials who were born after 1980. I call them the Facebook Generation. Adam Gray and Jeanna Grasso of Colorado are Facebook Generation voters. These young voters are not joiners and are mistrustful of groups except for those organized online. They are often more comfortable communicating via a computer screen than face-to-face and are used to having hundreds of choices when it comes to entertainment and most other aspects of their life, so they don’t understand why they should be forced to choose between just two political parties.
They see themselves as unique and special and don’t think they can be pigeonholed in just one political party. They do not like party labels and are similar to the NPR Republicans in their social libertarianism and fiscal conservatism, especially since they haven’t yet experienced the need for many government programs except for student loans and education aid, which they strongly favor.
They were captivated by the transformational nature of Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy and voted for him in large numbers, but they are disenchanted with the partisan gridlock in Washington and Obama’s inability to bring about the fundamental changes to the political system that he promised in the campaign. They are also far less reliable than other groups when it comes to turning out to vote, as was evidenced in the 2010 election.
Finally, the largest and most important of the Independent/Swing voting groups, aggressively pursued by both parties, are the suburban and exurban voters. I call these voters the Starbucks Moms and Dads because they rarely live very far from a strip mall with a Starbucks and they usually have children. Sue Thomas and Michael Sciulla of Virginia are a Starbucks Mom and Dad.
These are the real power voters—up for grabs and deciding elections in every region of the country. They too tend to be skeptical of big government, socially moderate, concerned about education and national security. In 2006, suburban voters went 50 percent in favor of Democrats and 48 percent for Republicans, but in 2010 only 42 percent of suburban voters chose Democrats versus 55 percent who voted Republican.10
* * *
There can be overlap among these groups, and they do not represent the only Independent voters in the country, but they do comprise the majority of swing voters that really matter. Academics often use the term swing voters to refer to persuadable voters who haven’t made up their minds a few months or weeks before the election and show up in preelection polling as undecided voters. But I am focusing here not on the voters who might predict or explain the outcome of a single election, but on the longer-term national implications of voters who are known by academics as party switchers or floating voters.11 These voters swing back and forth between parties from election to election and often split their tickets voting for candidates from both parties and, in so doing, decide election outcomes.
In addition, party affiliation is an ever-moving target because party allegiances and preferences shift constantly. Voters’ views change over time and are affected by national events. Someone may start voting for one party more frequently but not change their original voter affiliation. Or they may register as a Democrat in the South to vote in local and state primaries where the candidates are more plentiful but vote Republican in national races. Or they may call themselves an Independent but consistently vote for one party over another. Because of all these factors, some academics who study voting behavior insist the number of true Independent voters is smaller than 40 percent.
The crucial Independent voters that I am describing here are ideologically “middle of the road” or centrist, and their views reflect the feelings of more Americans on national issues than either liberals or conservatives. They tend to be fiscally conservative, more skeptical about government, and more concerned about deficits, which is more in line with Republican Party positions. But they do believe some government programs are important and agree more with the positions of the Democratic Party on issues like abortion and gay rights. They want the government to stay out of their personal lives and they want Congress and the president to spend their tax dollars wisely and conduct foreign policy and defense in a way that will protect American interests and keep the country safe.12
In several Pew Research Center polls over the past few years, more Independents say the Republican Party comes closer to their views on foreign policy, national security, and economic issues. But they say the Democratic Party is closer to their views on social issues.
In this regard, more than twice as many Independent voters than Republican voters favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally (45% vs. 20%).13
As a group, independents remain difficult to pin down. They are clearly left-of-center when it comes to religiosity and issues of moral values—independents’ views on homosexuality, gender roles, censorship and the role of religion in politics are clearly closer to those of Democrats than Republicans. At the same time, their views on broader economic issues have taken a turn to the right. In particular, they are now more conservative on questions relating to the role of government in providing a social safety net and the government’s overall effectiveness and scope.14
They are concerned about the federal deficit, government spending, and the American economy. They are extremely angry with Congress, frustrated with the way things are going in Washington, and mistrustful of a Democratic expansion of government, and these feelings determined their votes in the 2010 election.15
There is no doubt this ever-growing bloc of voters is significant. But calculating its size is not an exact science. In twenty-nine states, citizens register to vote by party and the number of unaffiliated voters in those states is a matter of public record. But in the other twenty-one states—including Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—voters do not have to specify their party affiliation when registering, which can make calculating party affiliation in these states a bit tricky. These are, however, the states where Independents can participate in the primary process.
In every New England state, Independents—or what most voter registration offices call unaffiliated or undeclared voters—outnumber Republicans or Democrats. In Massachusetts, more than half of all the voters are Independents.16 In Maine, where Eliot Cutler, the Independent candidate for governor, narrowly lost the 2010 election by less than 2 percent to Republican Paul LePage, Independents number about 35 percent of the electorate.17 In Connecticut and New Hampshire, more than 40 percent of the voters identify as unaffiliated.18 In Rhode Island, where former moderate Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee left the Republican Party in 2007 and successfully ran as an Independent candidate for governor of the state in 2010, about 48 percent of the voters are Independents.
But it’s far more than just a New England phenomenon. In Alaska, more than 53 percent of the state’s voters are registered as “nonpartisan or undeclared.”19 In New Jersey, more than 46 percent of the voters are undeclared, more than twice as many as are registered Republicans, and significantly more than are registered as Democrats,20 making it clear that GOP governor Chris Christie’s election in 2009, the first time a Republican had won statewide office in New Jersey in a dozen years, was thanks to his winning the state’s Independent vote.
There has also been a growth of Independent voters in many other states, including Iowa and Colorado, where they outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. About 30 percent of the voters in Arizona are Independents, a 15 percent increase between 2008 and 2010.21
Independent voters represent the largest and most important group of voters in this country. They are not part of a temporary phenomenon or fad, they have been around for decades, and their numbers are growing. They are angry and frustrated over the problems of the political system, but they don’t march on the capitol or show up screaming at congressional town hall meetings and so don’t get the attention they deserve.
Despite their critical role in election outcomes, these Independents have little to say about whom the parties select to run for office. That’s because in half the states in the country, the primary process is closed to them. An electoral system that all Americans pay for with their tax dollars is run solely by and for the two major political parties. Which means the American electoral system is not fully democratic. In many states, Independent voters are shut out from the start. Polls show that Independent voters are usually less satisfied with their choice of candidates than Republicans and Democrats and frequently say they are voting against something or someone rather than for someone.22 As a result, Independents are typically less engaged in the political system.
But in general elections, politicians need the Independent voters to win. Candidates seek the votes of Independents and woo them with attention in November. But once they have their victory or—to use the vernacular—get what they want, Independent voters are forgotten as quickly as a one-night stand. That has left them feeling a bit used—disconnected and disillusioned with a government they do not believe truly represents them. Independent voters feel ignored, fed up, and shut out of the system.
Once candidates are in office and looking toward their next reelection, Democratic and Republican office holders are beholden to their base supporters, the special interests who donate time and money to them and the parties that control both candidate selection and the agenda.
Independent voters are getting tired of being taken for granted. They’re tired of partisan wrangling, which all too often results in either gridlock and a lack of action on the most important issues the nation faces, or unsatisfactory, extreme legislative outcomes, pushed through by one political party with little input from the other.
Independent voters have determined the outcome and sought change in each of the last three national elections, but they haven’t yet seen the change they are looking for. Recent polls show that most Americans do not believe the country is on the right track and confidence in government is at an all-time low.23 That feeling is even stronger among the ever-growing group of Independent voters, especially those I spoke with in focus groups around the country.
Many think a third- or multi-party system might work better in representing a wider number of political views. They believe campaign contributions from special interests and lobbyists and political ads control and pervert the system, making it extremely hard for the average citizen to make his voice and views heard. They believe most politicians are simply interested in getting reelected and will do whatever it takes to win. These voters also think politicians consider their own reelection more important than the average person’s problems.
Not surprisingly, polls taken after the 2010 election showed that Independents believed both parties should move toward the center and that President Obama should work harder to find common ground with Republicans.24 They believe governing is about compromise, and they want elected officials to work with the other side to pass good legislation on important issues.
But even as the number of voters who consider themselves at the ideological center of American political opinion continues to grow, the number of moderates in both parties in Congress, the ones needed to achieve compromise, shrinks with every passing election, and the political parties become ever more extreme.
Political scientist Morris Fiorina of Stanford has written about this in several books—Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America and Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics. “There is little doubt that the political class in the United States is significantly more polarized today than it was a generation ago. But a close examination of the general population finds little or no sign of a comparable increase in polarization,” writes Fiorina.25 “In both red and blue states a solid majority of voters see themselves as positioned between two relatively extreme parties.”26
Most Americans are in the center and actually agree on a great deal. We’re not so deeply divided a nation as either the two parties or the political pundits would have us believe. They just need to listen to the Independent voters. These voters at the ideological center of national political thought represent the way forward for the political parties and a new way of thinking and trying to solve problems. These voters want compromise and common sense, and they want Republicans and Democrats to work together on centrist solutions to the most difficult issues we face as a nation. Only by listening to these voters and reforming the political process can we revitalize our politics and our country.
Copyright © 2011 by Linda Killian