The United States is once again in the middle of a major election year and in many elections, people will go the polls with only two options to choose from — red or blue, Republican or Democrat. The problem is a majority of Americans do not believe either major political party represents America.
According to the latest Rasmussen poll, 53 percent of likely voters believe “neither party in Congress is the party of the American people.” While some may dispute the results of a single poll, further evidence exists in voter registration data nationwide as the major parties continue to lose voters in many states.
The 53 Percent
On Thursday, April 24, Rasmussen published the results of a survey conducted on April 19-20, gauging how Americans view the Republican and Democratic parties. The percentage of respondents who said neither party represents America jumped 6 points from 47 percent in October 2013 to 53 percent. Not even a third of respondents disagreed with this — 28 percent — and 19 percent said they were not sure.
What is even more interesting is that many people who describe themselves as partisan voters said neither major party is the party of the American people — 52 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats. 65 percent of respondents not affiliated with either party feel this way.72 percent of Americans believe that it would be better if most incumbents in Congress were not re-elected in November, and only 9 percent said it would be better if most incumbents were re-elected. This makes sense as less than 10 percent of Americans currently think Congress is doing a good job.
Rasmussen found that the younger the voter, the more likely they are to believe that neither major party represents the American people, which is explained by the fact that younger voters are more likely to be politically independent from the two major parties.
However, it not just Millennials who have shifted in this direction. According to Pew Research, every living generation is, to various degrees, more independent now than they were 5 years ago. Millennials are just much more likely to be politically independent than Gen Xers, Boomers, or Silents.
The latest poll from Gallup, dated January 8, shows that 42 percent of Americans self-identify as independent, a number that has been on an upward slope since 2008 when it was around 36 percent.
There is no indication that the trend in voters who self-identify as independent is going to reverse anytime soon, but what about voter registration? What evidence is there that the parties are losing voters?
Voters Abandon the Political Parties as the Parties Abandon Them
On January 13, 2014, IVN shared a report that said the number of registered independents nationwide increased 11.2 percent in 5 years, while the number of registered Democrats and Republicans continues to drop.
According to the latest report from Third Way, an organization that claims to represent the “vital center,” independent registration (again meaning independent from either major party) has outpaced registration for both major parties in 11 of 12 states with competitive statewide elections in 2014. Since 2012, Republican and Democratic registration in these states decreased 1.7 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, while independent registration increased 3.2 percent.
The states included in the report are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The only one of these states to see higher growth in party registration between 2012 and 2014 was Kentucky. Colorado saw the highest growth of independents with an increase of 171,476 (20.6% growth), followed by Arizona with 171,476 (10.8% growth).
From East Coast to West Coast, the trend seems to be the same: Voters are leaving or rejecting the parties they feel no longer represent the American people — that have abandoned them.
This is evident in the most recent voter registration report from California’s secretary of state. The report, released on April 22 and dated April 4, shows that the only two parties to lose voters from the last report, dated December 31, 2013, were the Republican and Democratic parties. No Party Preference (independent) increased 20,271 from 3,698,660 to 3,718,931. The largest increase was “Other,” which includes members of third parties not represented in the voter rolls and Decline-to-State voters.
The Republican Party of California lost 31,816, while the Democratic Party lost 17,483. What is important to note is overall voter registration increased 229 from the December 31 report. The total increase in registered voters not affiliated with either major party as of the last report was 49,528. This means tens of thousands of voters left the major parties and registered with a third party, as an independent, or now refuse to declare their political affiliation.
Defining an Independent Voter
There are many people who are skeptical that so many independents actually exist in the United States. Some political commentators, mostly partisan talking heads, say that independent voters are a myth — independents are really closet partisans who will always lean Republican or Democrat.
If 53 percent of Americans say neither party represents them, 42 percent self-identify as independent, and there are so many more registered voters not affiliated with either major party, why hasn’t anything changed?
On April 22, Mother Jones political blogger, Kevin Drum, published an articled titled, “Most Independent Voters Aren’t, Really.” In it, Drum defines “true independents” as “the ones who switch between parties from election to election.” He says the reality is that only 10 percent of voters can actually claim true independent status and even they end up cancelling each other out in each election, so independent voter influence is practically non-existent in elections.
He quotes the following analysis from UCLA professor Lynn Vaverick, published on the New York Times website the same day:
“Only a small percentage of voters actually switched sides between 2008 and 2010. Moreover, there were almost as many John McCain voters who voted for a Democratic House candidate in 2010 as there were Obama voters who shifted the other way….On average, across districts, roughly 6 percent of Obama voters switched and just under 6 percent of McCain voters switched.”
According to Drum, “independent” means “swing voter.” Looking at the subject from within the current political system, it is clear why some people have developed this mindset. Many independent voters do end up leaning Democrat or leaning Republican, but consider these numbers posted on IVN’s article, “30 Reasons Why Independent Voters Are Not a Myth“:
Even Independent “leaners” (independents who lean towards one of the two major parties) do not vote along party lines. In 2000, 73 percent of Democratic-leaning Independents voted for a Democrat, American National Elections Studies (ANES) reports. Taken at face value, this statistic seems to support the argument that Independent voters are a myth.
But, compare it to the voting pattern of these same voters in 2002, in which the number of Democratic leaners voting for their party had dropped to 54 percent, and 2004, in which 38 percent of Democratic leaners were now GOP voters. This shows that independent leaners are not party loyalists.
But still, doesn’t it say something that these voters lean toward one major party or the other? Can they really be called independent if they only vote Republican or Democrat? Why, if people are so tired of the major parties, do people not vote third party or for an independent candidate?
Maybe it is a good idea to examine not only the election system in many states, but the political environment that is bias toward the two major parties and makes voters feel like they really don’t have any other options than Republican or Democratic candidates. If they think about voting third party or independent, well then they are just wasting their vote.
A Rasmussen poll from September 2012 reported that 55 percent of independents saw the presidential election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Forty-six percent of all likely voters said they would be voting with a lesser of two evils mentality.
Millions of voters nationwide are disenfranchised by partisan primaries that force them to choose between full participation in the election process and their constitutionally-guaranteed right of non-association. Yet, this means all of these voters are denied meaningful participation in the electoral process, which is a fundamental right.
Along with over 200 years of partisan gerrymandering, the election system in most states assures that 95 percent of congressional races remain uncompetitive.
The media has become nothing more than a partisan echo chamber for either the “Left” or the “Right,” and keeps the public dialogue confined in that narrative. The press decides which candidates voters are exposed to not only during the campaign season, but debates, and the major parties get to decide what questions are asked so the conversation continues to be nothing more than recycled talking points that offer no real solutions.
This is what the current political environment looks like. It is a not a friendly environment to political independents, who cannot be defined simply as voters who switch parties each election. Independent voters are willing to look beyond regurgitated, partisan talking points and party platforms. Independents are willing to question something when it doesn’t sound quite right and can think for themselves.
Being independent is a mindset; it cannot simply be defined by voting patterns or ideology. As more voters become aware of the full consequences of the current political system, they are starting to adopt this mindset in greater numbers.