Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy
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Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy

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Colorado is one of many states that have more adults registered as unaffiliated, or independent, than are registered in either of the two traditional parties.

Alaska leads in this category with over 50 percent independents. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have close to 50 percent. New Hampshire and New Jersey have about 42 percent registered independents. Colorado is next with about 39 percent. Connecticut, Iowa and Maine come in close behind Colorado.

For the record, as of April 1, 2019, Colorado has 39.3 percent active registered unaffiliated voters, 31.1 percent active registered Democrats, and 29.6 percent active registered Republicans. In only about half of the 50 states are people asked to register their party affiliation. In the other half, independent voters are identified by polling.

Along with a number of other states, Colorado has gradually but steadily shifted toward independent affiliation over the past two generations. At the same time, Americans have developed more negative views of the two political parties, especially for what they believe is, for them, the opposition party. The general pattern in Colorado in recent years has been for the percentage of unaffiliated registered voters to go up, the percentage of Democratic registration to hold steady, and the percentage of Republican registration to decline.

Just who are these unaffiliated (independent) voters? Throughout the nation, about 40 percent describe themselves as independents while 31 percent say they are Democrats and 27 percent call themselves Republicans. Note these figures are strikingly close with the ones we just gave you for Colorado.

Scholars and analysts agree that about 75 percent of the so-called “independents” should more accurately be called “leaners.” When prodded, independents admit to regularly voting for one of the two major parties. How do we define a Democratic or Republican “leaner?” This is a voter who might deliberately register independent or unaffiliated and, in addition, might proudly call themselves an independent, yet they are more likely than not to vote for the same party election after election. This could be, for example, in three out of four presidential elections. Or they could vote for three-quarters of the party’s ballot nominees over the course of a few state elections.

Some researchers find that maybe only 10 percent to 20 percent of those calling themselves independent are so decidedly independent that they are regularly hopscotching between the two parties and have no loyalty to either.

Those who view themselves as independents include a diverse group. Surveys by the Pew Research Center and others show they are younger, less interested in politics, somewhat less informed, more moderate on ideological issues and more likely to listen to the appeals of third-party candidates.

There also are studies that show unaffiliated voters are less likely to vote regularly. When they do vote, they make up their minds much closer to Election Day than do Democrats and Republicans. Many independents say they are turned off by the bickering and stalemates between the two major parties that prevent progress on issues such as building roads and highway or reforming our immigration system.

New independents include some former Democrats like Starbuck’s recently retired president Howard Schultz, who laments that “too many voices in the Democratic Party are going too far to the left.” He sees the greatest threat as the soaring national debt. He implies that is even more important than climate change or inequality. Then there are not a few former Republicans who are embarrassed by President Donald Trump’s attitude toward Russia and dictators and his seeming tolerance of white supremacists.

All of us know conservatives who no longer call themselves Republicans and social liberals who worry that the Democratic Party is promising far more in social welfare programs than it can pay for and deliver. The question is: Where can these unaffiliated people go politically? The answer is hard to provide.

The pollster Peter Hart says some of the appeal of describing oneself as independent is because we all like to believe we are our own free agent and that, like a good umpire, we call them as we see them and are not prejudiced by special interests or political party ideology.

Are unaffiliated voters predominantly moderate in their politics? They are more likely to describe themselves as moderate but not in a marked way. There are plenty of moderates who consider themselves conservative or liberal. The key point is that describing yourself as an independent and considering yourself a moderate are not exactly the same thing.

Here are a few of the realities about independents that need to be kept in mind as the 2020 elections approach:

1. Those who call themselves independents do not have enough in common to develop a viable third party. Thus it will be unlikely for Howard Schultz or someone like him to unite those who call themselves independents and win the White House.

2. Most independents are only slightly disguised partisans.

3. Few independents win elections. Alaska had an independent governor recently and Maine has an independent U.S. senator and a handful of independent state legislators. Alaska, Vermont, and New Hampshire have also been states electing a few independent state legislators.

4. Donald Trump’s job approval ratings during his first two years were more polarized along party lines than any president in recent times. He has won consistently high approval from regular Republicans — at the 85 percent rate or higher. But his job ratings among independents are at 34 percent, lower than his recent predecessors.

5. Independents are more aligned with Democrats on two social issues — same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. Democrats favored gay marriage by 73 percent, as did 70 percent of independents. In contrast, just 40 percent of Republicans say they support same-sex marriage. Similarly, on marijuana, Democrats and independent voters support legalization by an identical 68 percent, while 51 percent of Republicans oppose it.

6. Independents who lean Republican have grown more conservative in recent years, and those who lean Democratic have grown more liberal.

7. Overall, there is a growing distance between the political parties. Democrats are more disapproving of Republicans than they used to be and vice versa. Back in 1994, for example, about a third of Americans had a favorable attitude toward both parties. That is down to 12 percent.

8. There are few signs our party divisiveness is likely to subside. More people view political issues and government challenges through a partisan lens. We may be seeing an increase in registered unaffiliated voters and self-described independents yet this should not be interpreted as a rise in moderates or a move toward some common ground.

At least for the immediate future, we will have to live with the existing party system and the increased nastiness in partisan sniping. Those of us who are older are feeling great nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the recently deceased John McCain. These stalwarts seemed to bridge the partisan divide better than most of our current leaders.

Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.

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