The Rise of the Independents

January 7th, 2011

By Tom Carter

An interesting Gallup poll has just been released.  It measured people’s self-identification as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.  It also identified Independents who lean Democratic or lean Republican.

The findings came from a combination of numerous polls, resulting in an uncommonly broad and deep sample.  The nature of the sample permits an unusually small margin of error of plus-or-minus one percent.

According to Gallup, 31 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, down from 36 percent just two years ago.  That’s among the lowest for Democrats in many years, and it represents about a 14 percent loss in just two years.  The number who identify as Republicans increased by just one percentage point from 2008 to 2010, from 28 to 29 percent.  Independents increased from 35 to 38 percent in the past two years, to one of the highest levels measured in the past two decades.

The most significant finding is that when Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic are compared to Republicans and Independents who lean Republican, the numbers are 45 to 44 percent.  This one-percent advantage for Democrats is a huge change, both from 2008 and from earlier years:

There’s obviously been significant movement from the Democratic side of the equation to the Republican.  However, while Democrats lost a large number of self-identified members of their Party, there wasn’t much change on the Republican side — an increase of just one point, for a gain of 3.5 percent compared to the Democratic loss of almost 14 percent.  The obvious elephant in the room is Independents, who can switch sides very quickly.

An Independent, in the American context, is someone who doesn’t self-identify as a member of any political party, most notably Democratic or Republican.  The term is often confused with “moderate” or “centrist,” which includes people who occupy a position to the left of most Republicans and to the right of most Democrats.  In truth, an Independent can be a moderate/centrist, a liberal or a conservative, a libertarian, an adherent of some nutcase religious or political fringe movement, an extremist of any stripe, or just a self-serving politician who couldn’t manage to get into office as a member of any political party.  Or, an Independent might just be a person who as a matter of principle refuses to be part of a two-party political system that’s seen as deeply flawed.

So, we need to be very careful when we talk about Independents and what they think, want, and might do.

I’ve always thought of myself as a Democrat because I more closely identify with the basic beliefs and policy preferences of the Democratic Party.  There are a lot of Republican beliefs and policy preferences that I agree with, and I even find acceptable some aspects of Libertarian thought.  In recent years, however, with the rise of both left and right extremism and the destructive, uncompromising partisanship that reigns in Washington, I’m tempted more and more to simply declare a pox on both their houses.  Like many others who haven’t yet left the Democratic fold, it seems to me that the Party is leaving me.  My only other choice would be to become an Independent, and I’m not ready to do that just yet.

There are several scenarios that could play out between now and the November 2012 elections.  The most likely is that Democrats will continue to act as they have in the recent past, although they may pretend to be more moderate despite the moans of their leftist base.  Republicans will fail to effectively exploit their present advantage, frequently disappointing their right-wing base, especially the media howlers and the tea party.  That would mean that problems the people care most about don’t get solved.  On balance, I think that would result in Democratic losses and Republican gains in 2012, but not at the levels of 2008.

If the Democrats want to reverse some of their losses and the Republicans want to significantly increase their gains, here’s what they’ll have to be able to credibly take credit for:

  • A reverse of the inexorable slide into deeper deficits and debt.  That can be done only — I repeat, only — through increased revenue and reduced spending.  If some politician can find a way to do that without increasing taxes and reducing entitlements, good on him.  But it can’t be done.
  • Get the unemployment rate on a steady downward decline.  It’s unlikely that anything government can do will make much of a difference, so the politicians need to back off, reduce regulation and meddling in the economy, and let business be business and consumers be consumers.
  • Repeal or improve recent health care legislation.  Some things have to go, including the individual mandate and the requirement to file huge numbers of 1099s.  Other things need fixing, too, and if all the fixing means the law must be repealed, so be it.
  • Improve the financial situation of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  They don’t have to be fixed, which may be impossible.  Just get things going in the right direction.
  • Stay away from anything that resembles cap-and-trade and downplay the global warming debate.  While energy dependence and warming are serious issues, trying to address them in the next couple of years is a diversion from more urgent problems.
  • Continue our disengagement in Iraq and get us the hell out of Afghanistan.  Afghanistan in particular is going nowhere good, and like a dead fish the longer the issue lays around the more it stinks.  Within the next two years the stink is likely to become intolerable.
  • Finally, try to reduce the level of partisan rancor and at least appear to be working together in the interest of the country.

There are obviously other things that need to be done.  But the party that can believably take credit in these areas will be rewarded in 2012.  Frankly, I don’t think either party is up to it.  As I said, they’ll continue to muddle through, and the Democrats will lose a little more while the Republicans gain a little more.  That may be good news to right-wingers, but it will come at a cost to the country.

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3 Responses to “The Rise of the Independents”

  1. Lisa |

    Then there are people like me who were not polled. I am a registered Republican mostly for fiscal and defense reasons but I am thinking of becoming an independent. Most of the Republicans being mentioned as potential 2012 candidates have either too much baggage or are way too conservative on social issues. I really do NOT want to hear about abortion or whether someone goes to church on Sundays. I want a candidate to convince us of their executive leadership experience and their unquestionable patriotism who will lead us back to our exceptional standing in the world. If that is a Democrat who contests Obama or a Republican, I do not care. The current incumbent needs to go. Here’s looking for some hope and change!!!

  2. Dan Miller |

    I have invariably voted Republican simply because the alternatives have been worse. However, there are some conservative Democrats out there and they are well worth considering and respecting. There are also some RINOs, the less said about whom the better.

    Representative Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma, seems to be one of good Democrats. He voted this week against former Speaker Pelosi, opposes various EPA nonsense and has a pretty good Conservative record. Had I an opportunity, I would probably vote for him.

    I knew his dad, David Boren, in college. Dave was very bright and a natural leader. He became, as I recall, the youngest governor of Oklahoma and served in that capacity from 1975 to 1979. He then served in the Senate from 1979 to 1994. In the Senate he did quite well and I fully expected him to become President Boren one day. However, he dropped out of politics and became the president of the University of Oklahoma. I do not know why but wish he hadn’t.

  3. Tom Carter |

    There are good Democrats and good Republicans who try to do the best they can for their constituents and the country. There are also some losers we could do without. I wouldn’t even try to estimate the percentage of each kind of politician in Congress (or the White House). Funny thing is, it’s pretty clear that the parties are less than the sum of their members. The system doesn’t encourage the best, and the parties as structured don’t do it either. As I’ve said before, the only option available to us is to keep voting the rascals out until they finally get the message. The next two years will show us if either or both parties are capable of getting the message of the last election because it certainly wasn’t ambiguous.

    As far as Boren the Elder is concerned, you can make an argument that being President of the University of Oklahoma is more prestigious and useful than being either a member of Congress or president. Now, if we were talking about being President of the University of Texas, it wouldn’t even be arguable.

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