According to Gallup, there’s been a significant shift in national voter registration toward independents. In 2008, 27% of registered voters were Republican, 33% Democrat and 37% independent. In January 2020, 27% were Republican, 27% Democrat and 45% independent. Likewise in Colorado, 2010 registrations were split equally among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Today, 40% are independent, 28% Republican, 29% Democrat (and 3% minor parties).
It’s claimed that independents are now a larger block than Republicans and Democrats. That’s misleading. “Independents” is an imprecise term. More accurately, these are voters who just haven’t registered as Democrats, Republicans or with some minor party. That makes them “unaffiliated,” which once meant they couldn’t vote in primary elections to select party nominees. Now Colorado and some other states allow them to vote in a party primary even though they aren’t members of that party.
Minor parties aren’t a significant factor. Their candidates rarely win any elections, especially for major offices. In Colorado, the combined registration of Democrats and Republicans is 57%. And that’s where the action is, outnumbering the 40% of so-called independents. Ultimately, almost all of those independents wind up voting for either Democrat or Republican candidates. In doing so, they hitch their wagon to the agenda and coalition of one or the other of the two major parties, as a junior partner.
A Pew Research Center analysis finds that independents aren’t all that independent. Most are partisans who habitually vote for the party whose ideology and platform generally, if not completely, comports with their own. Less than 10% of independents say they have no partisan “leaning,” and most of these folks express little interest in politics and are less likely to vote. These are truly swing voters.
Independents are free to vote for fringe party candidates or write in any name they like on a ballot. But they’re kidding themselves if they believe those candidates can win. They may regard their vote as a symbolic statement of their independence. In reality, they’re forfeiting their power to affect the outcome of a general election and the major party that will actually govern them, even if it’s the lesser of evils.
Those who register as unaffiliated don’t want to formally identify, for whatever reasons, with any political party. While they may idealistically posture that they “vote for the person not the party,” what it reveals is that they don’t understand the way majority-party-politics in our electoral system works. In Colorado, unaffiliated voters lean left, especially younger voters. That was demonstrated in the 2018 election for governor when 60% of unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary and 40% in the Republican. This could change if progressive Democrats, now in total political control over the legislature and state offices, overreach as they seem to be doing.
The notion that independents could break away from the two major parties and form their own major third party is unrealistic. As a group, they’re not monolithic. Some hate Trump, some love him. Some are on the right, some left, some are self-described “moderates,” a subjective and nebulous term. There are sharp differences among them on immigration, capitalism, socialism, taxation, political correctness, education, social justice, wokeness, unions, foreign policy, abortion, the environment and many other beliefs and issues.
A single, like-minded, unified Independent Party is a pipe dream. If independents stopped voting en masse for Democrats and Republicans, they’d more likely splinter into multiple “third parties” that are powerless minor entities, to the advantage of our two existing major parties.
In other countries with multi-party parliamentary systems and proportional representation, after an election, legislators form coalitions among the contesting parties to create a governing majority and select a prime minister. In our country, electoral coalitions pre-exist before an election, and our Constitution and system of government inherently favor two, binary major parties who can win elections with a plurality of popular votes, not a majority. Since most “indies” vote for Democrats, their defection from the two major parties would benefit Republicans.
Polls show a very low public approval rating for Congress. But partisan Republicans and Democrats don’t dislike their own party, they revile the other one. So, the combined disapproval rating of Congress is misleading. Political gridlock is frustrating and today’s great political divide defies compromise on many issues. If the gridlock were broken because Democrats deferred to Republicans, the approval rating of Congress would soar as Republicans would then be delighted with Congress, and vice versa for Democrats if Republicans deferred to them.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.