inform | empower | engage
In The American Independent, we cited the decline of the national parties, the rise of special interest groups and the fractionating of the national media as the most notable phenomenon in today’s presidential politics. Of these, the last is perhaps the most challenging…precisely because of the breadth of opportunity it offers each of us to participate and engage in the process. And this goes double for the Independent.
Previously, the Independent was left with three national networks, a favorite newspaper or weekly magazine, and two national parties, neither of which he or she claimed or cared to. Today, the engaged Independent has virtually the same access to information as any partisan, and can actively participate in the debate and electoral process through a host of blogs and websites. The practical barriers to information and participation are these; the will to engage, access to the web, and the speed of light. That’s it.
William Powers of the National Journal develops this point in his December 7 article “What Horse Race?” Citing the explosion of news sources in the last 15 years and today’s extended campaigns, there is ample opportunity for the citizenry to inform itself and plenty of opportunity for candidates to move up and down in the polls. In this we are all saved from the self-fulfilling prophecies of old media’s tendency to pick a winner and then see him or her through to the finish line. In Powers words:
The final shift brought on by old and new media is the dilution of the old establishment media’s power and influence. If the mainstream media were ever in a position to orchestrate the horse race — and to some extent, they once were — those days are over. The race is now controlled from below, by the various constituencies that coalesce — or not — around candidates as they emerge in the public consciousness through the kaleidoscope of digital media.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Franklin was asked by a Mrs. Powell “What sort of government have you given us, Doctor?” “A Republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” Well, we remain so challenged to this day, i.e., to keep it. And that means all of us, because that’s the way it works best. Independents have never had greater access to the process. It is up to each of us to engage and use it.
On July 1, 2007, Washington Post staff writers Dan Balz and Jon Cohen reported on what could well be the most in-depth look at Independents we will have this year. The Survey of Political Independents was co-sponsored by the The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
Conducted nationally between May 3 and June 3, 2007, the survey reflects the views of 2,140 randomly selected individuals who were each asked 99 questions covering a wide range of political preferences and issues. Summary results were: 36% identified as Democrat, 27% as Republican, 29% as Independent, with the balance citing Libertarian, Conservative, Other, No Party, Don’t know. IDn will be drawing on the survey in its coverage of the 2008 election.
IDn readers may be particularly interested in the following categories of Independents that Balz and Cohen developed from the survey report. The percentages indicate each category’s portion of all Independents:
Deliberators (18%) – Classic swing voters who believe in the two-party system, tend to have favorable views of the parties and repeatedly strut their independence at the ballot box.
Disillusioned (18%) – Deeply dissatisfied with politics today, antagonistic to both parties and the two-party system itself, nearly 7 in 10 of whom cite themselves as angry.
Dislocated (16%) – While active and engaged, these are overwhelmingly socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and uncomfortable with increasingly polarized parties.
Disguised Partisans (24%) – Thinking like partisans – i.e., Republican or Democrat – and tending to vote on a party line, these nevertheless disavow party identification, are more negative about politics today, and are more likely to have supported an independent or third party candidate in the past.
Disengaged (24%) – Largely removed from the political fray.
Other cites from the article:
59% of Independents in the sample have always thought of themselves as an Independent; 21% of Independents in the sample were former Democrats and 14% were former Republicans.
When asked to rate the national parties, 55% of the Independents interviewed viewed the Democrats favorably, while 41% gave Republicans favorable marks.
Survey Independents cited preferring to vote the issues and the candidates, rather than party affiliation, as the most important reasons for self-identifying as Independents.
According to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky, in 2004, Independents split 49% for the Democrat candidate and 48% for the Republican; in 2006, Independents voting for House of Representative candidates split 57% for the Democrats and 39% for the Republicans.
In the 2004 National Election Study, 39 percent of the sample self-identified as politically Independent. While this survey is generally considered the gold standard on the subject, many challenge it as grossly overstating the actual number of Independents in the electorate. Some thoughts.
Let’s start with the survey questions. The first is: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?” This and a follow up question sort respondents into one of the following categories: Strong Democrat, Weak Democrat, Independent, Weak Republican, Strong Republican.
Independents are further sorted by asking “Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican or the Democratic party?” This results in Independents being classified as Independent Democratic, Independent, and Independent Republican. This brings the number of categories to seven: Strong Republican, Weak Republican, Independent Republican, Independent, Independent Democrat, Weak Democrat, Strong Democrat. The controversy revolves around the “leaners,”. i.e., the Democrat and Republication Independents; i.e., are they Independents or are they disguised partisans?
The issue arises out of further analysis of the data indicating that leaning Independents are more politically active than weak Republicans and Democrats, and may even vote more reliably with the party toward which they lean than “weak” partisans. Removing the leaning Independents from that category would reduce to 10% those classified as Independent, the same percentage as found in the 1960 survey.
But really, now, how likely is it that one quarter of the NES survey from 1960 though 2004, would consistently lie to surveyors year after year, survey after survey? Why would they do that? To what end? Are they delusional?Furthermore, the 2004 data is the latest in a 44 year trend. From 1960 to 2004, there is a steady growth in “leaning” Independents, from 6% Democrat Independents and 7% for Republican Independents to 17% and 12%, respectively. Clearly, something is going on.
One explanation might be the political polarization of recent years. It is certainly plausible that it has so associated Republicans with conservatism and the Democrats with liberalism that when an Independent is asked which party she or he “leans,” the conservatives among them reply Republican and the liberals Democrat. Indeed, a recent survey indicated that roughly two thirds of Independents are conservative or liberal on the political spectrum.
A more substantive challenge to the 39% figure can be inferred from the data of www.ballot-access.org. Tallying 2006 voter registration data for 30 states comprising 57% of the electoral college, 41.6% percent were Democrats, 32.4 % Republicans and 24.2% Independents, this last up from 18.4% in 1992. Interestingly, Independents were the largest category of voters for eight of the 30 states.
Is the 39% too high? Is the 24% too low? Remembering that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, it’s hard to say. What is clear is that a substantial portion of the electorate does not self-identify with either of the major parties. IDn would like to facilitate and strengthen their participation in the political process. We can help. Spread the word.
On the face of it, the voting Independent would not seem to have a role in presidential primaries. Primaries are held to determine the nominees of political parties; i.e., organizations with which the Independent, by definition, declines association.
While this may seem only logical, it raises a number of issues. Indeed, it was just such a situation that several of the Founding Fathers feared with the development of political parties; i.e., a person would have to join a party to have a voice in who was to be considered for high office. Ironically, the primary system itself emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century as a solution to the back room dealing of political bosses who were seen as bargaining and trading nominations for political and personal gain.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the primaries rose to their current prominence and impact. Until then, the primary served essentially as a state-wide poll of the party faithful. Delegates to the nominating conventions were not bound by the results. Today, convention delegates, in one way or another, are largely committed to a candidate by a state primary or caucus.
Currently, the Democrats hold primaries in 35 states and Republicans hold primaries in 32. Where Democrats do not hold primaries, caucuses determine convention delegates. The Republicans use caucuses in 14 states with combined primary/caucuses or a state convention used in the remainder. The political parties in fourteen states hold their primaries on different days, and in seven states a different venue is used; e.g., one party uses a primary and the other a caucus.
Who gets to vote in a party’s primary is also a state by state affair. Some primaries are open; i.e., a voter registered in a state can vote in the primary of his or choice. Other primaries are closed; i.e., if you are registered as a D, you can only vote in the D primary. A few states allow Independents to vote in primaries, but an overwhelming majority do not.
A point not generally appreciated, however, is that registering as Republican or Democrat is largely a matter of self-identification. In fact, only one in 25 of those registered as D or R is actually a dues paying member of a state political party organization. Indeed, many Independents register as of one party or another for the express purpose of voting in a primary. I did this once myself.
Registering is relatively easy and for most states you still have time to register as of one party or another and participate in the primary process. But, as above, each state has it own rules. Click on Vote 411 under Resources on IDn’s web page to link to your state and go from there.
I believe strongly that in future elections registered Independents should be allowed to vote in presidential primaries, especially given the growth among those self-identifying as Independent. For 2008, the role of the Independent includes following the primaries closely and identifying the candidate who most closely aligns with what you believe is needed to be a good president and supporting him or her with your time and resources. As important, encourage colleagues in that candidate’s party to vote for him or her in the primary.
Your views on Independents and the primaries are very much encouraged.
Independents are commonly assumed to all be in the middle of the political spectrum, i.e., “moderate.” WRONG.
According to a May 2007 national survey*, 25% of Independents surveyed saw their views as politically liberal, 38% as moderate and 35% as conservative. On social issues, 35% identified themselves as liberal, 32% as moderate and 31% as conservative. Fiscally, 15% of those surveyed were liberals, 35% moderate and 48% conservative. Across these three areas, then, approximately two thirds of Independents surveyed are not moderates.
Expecting Independents to be politically moderate should not be that surprising in today’s highly polarized political landscape. But our political world was not always thus, and here’s a word or three on how the Democrats and Republicans have come to be perceived on the conservative- moderate- liberal continuum.
During the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, traditional loyalties of family, religion and region were torn in every direction, with many shifting their political identity and focus from party to cause or candidate. In his 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter didn’t pick up the pieces of the Democratic debacle of 1972; he largely ignored them, running successfully against entrenched politics per se. He was to be turned out in 1980 by a Ronald Reagan who had raised conservatism to an art form, stamped it with an elephant, and won the votes of millions of conservative Democrats.
Indeed, 1980 was not so much the triumph of a party, but over one. Reagan’s solidification and expansion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and its ascension to control did more than put him in the White House. It set the stage for the American political dynamic that we have today. Previously, each of the parties had a notably wider philosophical spectrum. There were, in fact, a fair number of liberal Republicans in the Senate and whole state delegations of conservative Democrats in Congress. Reagan’s success in claiming the conservative mantle for the Republican Party challenged conservative Democrats to rethink their affiliation.
Reagan’s landslide win in 1984 showed the Democrat Party of the Great Society and a thousand causes to have become politically irrelevant and practicably unworkable. Bill Clinton moved the party to a more moderate middle ground in 1992 and unseated George Bush, Reagan’s vice president and successor. However, despite eight years of economic prosperity, budget surpluses, welfare reform and lower crime under Clinton, in 2000 the Republicans defeated Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, in large measure by painting him as liberal.
All of this has left us with a political spectrum whose conservative registers are owned by the Republicans with the Democrats viewed generally as liberal, though with many of its ranks uncertain as to just how liberal they really are, or need to be. It is this “politics of the poles” that inclines many to see Independents as moderates. This is, however, to miss the complexity of the Independent community. And for the politically engaged Independent, it means taking great care to learn about and sort among the issues and candidates.
This is why we built IDn. We want to help you think, to ask questions and to find answers. Your thoughts on how IDn can do this better are always welcome.
Survey of Political Independents; Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University; May 3-June 3, 2007.
This book is just out and I am about half through it. Really good so far. It tracks the level of partisanship in the Congress from McKinley (1896) to the present. The subtitle is “How extreme partisanship has paralyzed Washington and polarized America.” Brownstein recently left the LA Times and is now political director of the Atlantic Media Co, publisher of the National Journal and the Hotline.
The rise of partisanship is regarded by some as the root cause of the growth in Independents. It would hard to say there’s not a link, but I personally believe there’s a lot more going on and will be exploring this issue in future articles. I am looking forward to whatever Brownstein might say about this and will report on it when I’ve finished the book. Any comment/reaction/thoughts on the book for IDn Blog would be most welcome. NOTE: David Border (WP) gave the book high praise in his Sunday, Nov 23 article.
Future Elector articles: Independents and the Primaries, Survey Says… and Spectrum. Spectrum will be up on Thursday, Nov 29 and debunks the notion that Independents are all political moderates, as well as offers thoughts on how the Rs and the Ds came to their currrent profiles. Survey Says… will be the first of a number of articles built on a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University survey on Indpendents completed in May of 2007. Independents and the Primaries will be out next week. The skinny on this is that Independents may want to consider registering as of one party or another in order to have a voice in the candidate selection process… Just a thought. Look for the article on Monday, December 3.