Ann McFeatters: Rise in independent voters imperils moderates

Published:

A record number of us now say we are political independents, swiveling our heads right and left as we watch the Democrats and the Republicans try to govern -- and fail.

Forty-four percent of Americans insist they are neither Republican nor Democrat, according to Gallup polling. That is about nine points higher than surveys showed at the same period in 2008, the last presidential election year.

If this trend continues, which is likely, there are huge ramifications for the country and politics.

Unless more states change the system of forcing voters to register with a party to vote in primaries, fewer people will decide who the general-election candidates will be. This is good news for Tea Partiers, who at the moment are organized and energetic. They are getting their people on the ballot. It is not such good news for moderates and those in the middle who would like to see a resurgence of bipartisanship.

As the parties have less clout, giant political action committees with access to huge amounts of money to spend pushing their own interests will have more say on national policy and more influence on office holders.

Campaigns will be increasingly negative, with candidates bad-mouthing each other without apology or subterfuge. Without party loyalty, independents have to be heavily courted. And every study shows that negative ads work.

On the other hand, independents tend to have different views on different issues. For example, they may be liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues. They will not fall in lockstep behind a candidate just because he or she is the party pick.

In general elections, candidates may be less ideological and more pragmatic. It's possible they might even say what they truly think, although we don't want to be Pollyannaish on this.

Independent voters may turn out to be more politically active than lifelong party members if they have enough passion to try to change the status quo. If independent voters make up 50 percent of all voters (only 6 percent more independents than we have now), only about 25 percent of the voting population will be Republicans and only 25 percent will be Democrats. If motivated, independent voters could be a force to be reckoned with.

Although third parties have never been successful in America, it can be argued that Ralph Nader hurt Al Gore and Ross Perot hurt George H.W. Bush. A charismatic nonparty candidate backed by independents conceivably could become president in the future.

Party leaders, like union leaders, should be deeply worried about the trend away from establishment Republicans and establishment Democrats. They will have to scramble harder for more money and volunteers to do grass-roots politicking.

But they also might pay more attention to demographics and the policies their party platforms espouse.

Americans have grown so disenchanted with institutions, from organized religion to Wall Street, it is not surprising political party membership is disdained in an era when the economy is stagnant, jobs are scarce and Republicans and Democrats can't agree on anything that might help.

It is of course possible that when the economy strengthens and the unemployment rate declines (and it eventually will), old party identification and loyalty will return.

But it is also possible that the move toward independence will continue, and we might see some or all of the suggested scenarios.

Here's betting that some years from now, the nation will be governed in a far different way and that the powerful political parties of yesterday will be gone.

We have to hope that the politics of the future will be smarter and more efficient, fairer and less expensive, more responsive to citizens and less dominated by special interests than is true today.

Well, we can dream. In the meantime, we have to gird ourselves for the two big national political conventions and watch Republicans and Democrats tell themselves how wonderful they are.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.