Independents Gaining In Numbers, Political Strength

Michael Bitzer

Two interesting developments recently occurred that might give some political watchers the sense that the independents in the electorate have finally arisen to their prominence, especially here in North Carolina.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Harold Cogdell’s announcement of his decision not to run for re-election, and more importantly, switching his party affiliation to “unaffiliated,” combined with the America Elects’ apparent success in gaining access to the state  ballot, appears to confirm the indies’ rise to prominence.

From one point of view, America has been splitting into thirds when it comes to political party identification (or, in the case of indies, the lack thereof).

Since 1984, the American electorate has become a coalition country rather than a majority-party nation. 

Gallup Poll Yearly Party Identification 1984-2011

At the end of 2011, 41 percent of Americans responded to the Gallup Poll’s question about party identification by choosing “Independent,” the largest percentage since Gallup began taking the poll since 1939. 

Democrats are down to their historic base of the party at 32 percent, while the GOP, after the 2010 Tea Party surge, is back down to 28 percent. 

Notice that since 2006, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as “independent” has been the area that has seen the greatest rise. 

But when independents are asked “well, which party do you tend to lean towards?,”  we get the fluctuating coalition of party in power versus the party out of power. 

Starting in 2006, Democrats rode the wave of anti-Bush sentiments to the GOP’s detriment, while in 2010 the GOP reaped the rewards of the Tea Party movement.

Party Identification including Leaners by Gallup Poll

So the way that I look at the national electorate, the political parties are constantly shifting coalitions of their party base (anywhere from 28 percent to 35 percent for each of the two major parties), but more importantly, it’s combining that coalition with enough independents to successful gain a plurality in an election.

Remember, the rules of the American game of politics is “first past the post,” so whoever comes in with one more vote (in most cases) than the second place finisher gets the election.

Within North Carolina, we’re seeing a similar shift in the electorate, but one that isn’t as pronounced as it is nationally. 

Going back to 2004 and tracking the percentage of registered voters with the two major political parties and the “unaffiliated” category, both Democrats and Republicans have seen a leveling off, or a slight decline, in their party adherents.  But for unaffiliated (read, independent) voters, the rise is pretty dramatic, from 18 percent of the registered voter pool in 2004 to nearly 25 percent of registered voters state-wide.

North Carolina State-wide Registered Voters by Party Affiliation

Democrats may seem like they continue to control the statewide registered voters, but they are entering into the necessary “coalition building” phase, just as Republicans have been doing for some time. 

Like at the national level, self-identified party supporters vote for their party typically 85-90 percent of the time (Democrats in 2008 voted for their party’s candidates 90 percent of the time, while Republicans cast 95 percent of their votes for GOP candidates, per exit polls).  It’s the rising influence of independents that can sometimes determine the victor in a general election.

Within Mecklenburg, the trend is slightly different, due to the 800-pound gorilla in the electoral room known as the City of Charlotte.  Democrats have bucked the trend in the Great State of Meck with increased percentages of registered voters, while Republicans have seen a serious decline in their percentage, and are almost at the same level of independents within the county. 

Mecklenburg County Registered Voters by Party Affiliation

 Codgell’s decision not to run as an Independent candidate in the open Ninth Congressional District is a signal of the reality, though, that while the electorate is sorting itself into a competitive environment, those who get to draw the lines of the district can influence which party comes out the winner. 

The 9th Congressional District, even with the predominance of Mecklenburg in it, is still a very safe GOP district. Combining the numbers of Democrats and possible Dem-leaning independents, it would still be difficult to see any candidate emerging from the November election with anything other than an “R” behind them. 

While Independents are growing tired of the polarization of American politics (and now, seemingly at the state and local levels as well), declaring one’s independence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Indies may be growing in strength, but it’s going to take another revolution to get them into office.  That day may be coming sooner, though.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Independents Gaining In Numbers, Political Strength

  1. Peggy

    Very interesting. While I was canvassing for Kissel in 2006 I knocked on lots of registered Democratic doors only to find they haven’t voted Democratic since about 1964. I asked several why they don’t change their registration, and mostly just got stared at like I don’t know my history. It seems to me that most Independents are former Republicans, though obviously not Codgell, dude has some serious problems.

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