Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Independent voters — long a dominant force in the American political zoology — are evolving into an endangered species.

These nonaligned citizens are not only shrinking as a share of the overall electorate, but are also voting less and becoming more ideologically liberal — all significant factors for the 2006 congressional elections.

When modern survey research began tracking partisan identification over a half century ago, independents grew for two decades, peaking during the early-1970s at around 20 percent of the overall electorate. But after topping out around the time of Watergate, partisan- oriented voters began to rise, accounting for a fatter slice of the overall voting population during the past three decades. America’s independents declined during that same period, not only in size, but also in their self-identified level of conservatism — a significant development for partisan tacticians.

The University of Michigan’s American National Election Study has tracked voter partisanship since 1952. They report that the percentage of independent voters peaked around 10 percent in the mid-1970s and has steadily declined (except for some minor moves up and down along the way). While about 10 percent of voters during the 1970s self-identified as true independents (this percent excludes those who initially say they are independent, but “lean” Republican or Democrat after a follow-up question), that number plummeted to only 4 percent in the last off-year election in 2002.

Independents’ ideological orientations are also in flux. Conventional wisdom suggests that these voters occupy the middle of the road, falling somewhere between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. But the University of Michigan data reveal somefascinating trends here as well. Between 1972 and 2000, a higher percentage of independent voters consistently classified themselves as conservatives compared to liberals. But since 1996, the percentage of independents self-labeled as conservative has steadily declined from 28 percent down to 9 percent. Meanwhile, the percent categorizing themselves as liberal has grown in the last three cycles (2000-2004).

Indeed, in 2002, the proportion of independents classifying themselves as liberal exceeded the number of conservatives for the first time since Michigan started collecting the data.

This is a function of independents and weak partisans migrating toward the stronger partisan categories of both parties, but with conservative-leaning independents moving into the Republican column at a faster clip. Overall it’s creating what some political scientists call a “hollowing out” of the middle of American politics, replacing a bell-curve shaped electorate with something that looks like a bi-modal distribution — or two humps on a camel, one for each party. It also explains why lawmakers play to their respective bases, rather than try to appeal to a shrinking middle and alienate base voters.

Political pollsters have noted over the last several years that the remaining independent voters look less and less like the mid-point between the two political parties and increasingly like partisan Democrats. This has led some Republican strategists to worry about declining support among independents. But what if the cohort we call “independents” is fundamentally different than 30 years ago — smaller and less persuadable in terms of supporting Republicans? In other words, what if the bulk of American voters are no longer clustered in some “vital center,” but instead shifted left and right into opposing partisan camps? Tactically, if independents represent a smaller percentage of voters and are less conservative, it’s unclear how much GOP congressional candidates should worry about them. This is particularly true in off-year elections. The University of Michigan data demonstrate that since 1954, turnout in midterm elections among independents drops off by about 10 percent compared to presidential years.

But congressional races are prosecuted district by district. And in the 30 to 40 most competitive House contests, with large numbers of partisans on both sides, garnering even a small number of independents could tip the balance for control of Congress.

If these trends among nonpartisan voters continues, winning their hearts and minds will prove challenging for the GOP. For these reasons, 2006 represents a unique political challenge. Independent voters, while shrinking, can’t be written off completely by Republicans.

Finding some support among this endangered independent political species while keeping GOP partisans energized is a perennial electoral puzzle — and getting harder to decipher given recent trends.

Solving it correctly may mean the difference between majority and minority status come November.

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