Fed up with the Democrats and Republicans who run Washington, growing numbers of people are calling themselves independents.
The Republican Party stands to suffer the most from the movement away from staunch party loyalty, but Democrats also are affected.
“This says both parties are dealing with wounded brands,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. As a result, he said, “there are more voters up for grabs.”
Voters are increasingly wary of anyone with ties to the political establishment. A McClatchy-Marist poll last month found 41 percent of registered voters called themselves independent, a much higher percentage than either political party can claim.
Gallup found the independent total last year at 42 percent, the highest since it began asking 25 years ago. One-fourth identified themselves as Republicans, the worst showing during that span. Thirty-one percent said they were Democrats, down 5 percentage points from 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected.
The impact on next fall’s congressional and gubernatorial elections is hard to gauge precisely. Many voters retain emotional links to political parties and might still be susceptible to partisan pitches. But independents have shown a tendency to move away from candidates they’re uncomfortable with in recent elections, and polls suggest they’re ready to do so again.
The trend arguably has cost Republicans the ability to have more clout in the Senate since 2010, as they’ve lost seats they’d been expected to win. Democrats today control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
In 2010, for example, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., who’d repeatedly won his at-large congressional seat statewide, fell in the Republican Senate primary to tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell. Independents were 27 percent of the state’s electorate that year, and they gave little-known Democrat Chris Coons a 3 percentage point advantage. O’Donnell couldn’t overcome that edge, since she won 4 of 5 Republicans, not enough to offset Coons’ winning 9 of 10 Democrats.
In 2012, Republicans saw big opportunities to win a Senate seat in Missouri and hold on to one in Indiana. But tea party candidate Richard Mourdock beat veteran incumbent Richard Lugar in Indiana’s Republican primary, and controversial conservative Todd Akin won Missouri’s Republican nomination.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who’d been seen as highly vulnerable, beat Akin easily. Independents made up about 28 percent of the Missouri voters, according to exit polls, and they gave her a 50-38 percent edge. Yet those same independents voted 59-35 for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
In Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly benefited from the same trend. Independents were 27 percent of the electorate, and they voted by 50-39 percent for him – but 52-41 for Romney.
Republican conservatives face similar problems this year in states where moderate Republicans can make a difference. Center-right Republicans helped elect governors in Democratic-leaning states in 2010, but several of them now face trouble.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Corbett’s Quinnipiac poll approval rating was 36 percent last month. Independents have turned on him; 59 percent voted for him in 2010, but 53 percent now disapprove of the job he’s doing. Corbett has stirred controversy with his anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage views.
In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage also has lost ground. Last year he called independent lawmakers – a potent force in Maine – “idiots,” and another time suggested that the Internal Revenue Service was “not quite as bad – yet” as Nazis responsible for the Holocaust.
Pan Atlantic SMS Group, which conducts surveys in Maine, found in November that LePage trailed Democrat Mike Michaud by a percentage point. A key reason: Independents preferred Michaud by 8 percentage points.
In the South, the independent trend creates a different narrative. The movement tends to be away from the Democratic Party, which controlled politics for generations. Republicans began making inroads in the late 1960s, as many whites rebelled against Democrats’ championing of civil rights legislation. The trend now threatens the few remaining Democratic statewide officeholders in the South .
In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a tough road to re-election, white voters “tend to not like Washington. They’re pro-gun, anti-abortion and want lower taxes,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a partner in Baton Rouge’s Southern Media and Opinion Research.
It’s still hard for people whose family ties to Democrats go back generations to say they’re Republicans, but “they don’t like the Democratic Party,” Pinsonat said.
“But they don’t consider themselves officially in the Republican Party,” he explained, “so they call themselves independent.”
Another imperiled Democratic incumbent is Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. In 1999, according to the Arkansas Poll, 35 percent of adults identified themselves as Democrats, 23 percent as Republicans and 31 percent as independents. Last year, the Democratic share had dropped to 30 percent, independents were up to 37 percent and Republicans claimed 24 percent.
Those moving away from the Democratic Party “hate the national Democratic Party. They’re very uncomfortable with President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid,” poll director Janine Parry said. Nevada Sen. Reid and California Rep. Pelosi, the top Democratic congressional leaders, are regarded as leaders of the liberal wing.
At the same time, though, people in Arkansas “know their local Democrats,” and are often comfortable with them, Parry said.
The way a Democrat wins in such states – which include North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky – is twofold: Paint the Republican as an extremist and make sure the local folks talk up the Democratic candidate.
“We win when we get the moderates,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In each of those states, tea party favorites are challenging establishment choices. Incumbents Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., face more conservative rivals for their party’s nominations.
In Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and a fierce Republican primary battle to succeed him is underway. In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is seen as vulnerable, particularly to a center-right candidate. Should a more conservative candidate harness the voter outrage and win a Republican primary, the Democrats would be given a better chance in those states.
Whether the independent trend will create a national wave for one party or another is unlikely. Past national trends are poor predictors. Romney won independents in 2012 by 50 to 45 percent, according to network exit polls, while losing the overall popular vote, by 51 to 47 percent.
Obama easily won the independents in 2008, but while Democrat John Kerry topped President George W. Bush among them by 49 to 48 percent in 2004, Bush won the election.
Presidential elections, though, tend to see higher turnouts. Participation in midterm elections usually is far less, and races often turn on local issues and personalities. That, in turn, means that voters flirting with independence are wooable.
“With Americans increasingly eschewing party labels for themselves,” Gallup analyst Jeffrey Jones said, “candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit.”