More voters belong to neither party than belong to either the Republican or Democratic parties in Colorado. Unaffiliated voters comprise 39% of Colorado voters, compared to 30% for Democrats and 29% for Republicans, according to data from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
This phenomenon is not unique to Colorado. A Gallup survey in 2017 found that 42% of voters in the U.S. are independents, as opposed to 29% who are Democrats and 27% who are Republicans.
The prevalence of independent voters raises two interesting questions. First, how do independent voters actually vote? Are they truly independent, or are they really partisans in disguise? Are they moderates, or are they on the fringes of the political spectrum? Second, what does the high number of independent voters reveal about our political system?
It is difficult to generalize about the voting behavior of unaffiliated voters, because they are independent for different reasons. Some research indicates that they are disguised partisans rather than moderate, swing voters.
A major study conducted by Pew Research last month found that 38% of voters nationally are independents, but most people in that group lean toward one party or the other. The percentage of voters who truly lean toward neither party is around 7%, according to the Pew data. And most of these non-leaning independent voters are apathetic about politics, less politically engaged and less likely to vote.
This seems to refute the notion that winning the independent vote is the key to winning elections. There just aren’t enough of them out there. However, in a polarized nation with a relatively even split between Republicans and Democrats, those 7% may be the key to victory.
This is particularly true in so-called “midterm” elections such as 2010, 2014 and 2018. Control of Congress frequently hinges on which party performs best among independent voters.
In 2006, when Democrats won the House, they enjoyed an 18% margin among independents. Four years later, in 2010, Republicans won independent voters by 19% and reclaimed the House majority. In 2018, independents once again broke in large numbers for Democrats, returning them to majority control of the House.
In short, independents comprise a huge portion of the electorate, but they are a mix of moderate and disengaged voters, veiled partisans, and voters on the left and right wings who are disenchanted with the party towards which they lean.
The more fascinating question is how this relates to the long-term health of our political system. Americans have always had some suspicion of party politics, but only recently have they been this disengaged from parties. In the 1800s, it was impossible to be an independent voter. Parties printed their own ballots, and only placed their candidates on the ballots. Ticket-splitting was impossible.
More fundamentally, in the 1800s parties gave voters a reason to be attached to them. They stood for platforms and nominated candidates who adhered to those platforms. They had resources and political networks that engaged voters and brought them together. Political reforms over the last century have aimed at destroying these networks, leaving state and local parties almost non-existent.
It’s no wonder, then, that people no longer identify with these parties. They no longer have a significant presence in our lives. Some might celebrate our increasing independence from parties, but I submit that we have dysfunctional politics because our parties are too weak.
Political parties serve critical functions in American politics. They promote compromise by vesting leaders with authority to negotiate, come to agreements, and impose discipline on rank-and-file members so the deal sticks. They mobilize, educate, and engage voters on issues rather than making elections about individual candidates and their personalities. They promote capable politicians who have demonstrated excellence regardless of their fame or wealth, as opposed to candidate-centered elections where rhetoric, ambition and the cult of personality determine the outcome.
Without strong parties, our politics has descended into chaos and perpetual conflict. The rise of independents has not made our politics more civil, more moderate, or more focused on substantive issues. It has worsened these trends. Until Americans come to appreciate the role parties can play in organizing our politics, we are going to experience the same dysfunction that we’ve seen over the past several years.
Joseph Postell is assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he teaches courses on American political institutions, American political thought and administrative law.