My old boss, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, often told crowds during his 2010 campaign that Colorado voters were just about evenly divided, with roughly a third each Democrat, Republican and independent. He was right back then, but in recent years the independents (or “unaffiliated” voters) are creeping up in number and may now be as high as 40% in the Centennial State.
That means that these non-aligned folks will likely be the deciding force in the 2020 election, from the top of the ballot on down, as was pointed out in a recent Colorado Politics story. This is an interesting trend to an old political science professor like me in that the nation as a whole seems to be becoming more and more polarized. But assuming the figures are correct, and independents are now the largest voting block in Colorado, what does that mean in the practical world of politics and campaigning? It’s hard to say, in that the “new” independents seem to be coming from roughly equal numbers of former Dems and GOPers deciding to become unaffiliated, while young people entering the political system tend to avoid party affiliation at all far more often than their parents and grandparents did.
Back when I was teaching American government to cadets at the Air Force Academy and we got to the lesson on political parties, I’d ask the students to please raise their hands if they identified as being of a different political party than their parents. Inevitably, very few hands would be raised. Political science types have long known that the single best predictor of a person’s political identification is the party ID of his or her parents. That’s not really too surprising given the massive influence parents have over their kids. Parents who were Dems or Republicans or independents tended to have children who felt the same way. It would be interesting to go back to the classroom now to see if there was a trend away from traditional party ID toward being an independent. I bet there is.
So why do we have political parties anyway? And why just two big ones? Well, for that we need look no further than the founding generation of Americans. I suggest you take a moment and do a quick re-read of Federalist Paper #10. I’ll wait here…
All set? Well, you can see in that remarkable document that Madison argued that “faction” was “sown in the nature of man,” meaning that we have a very human tendency to divide ourselves into groups, and to argue. Today we call factions by other names, like political parties and special-interest groups.
In Fed 10, Madison argues that because of that aspect of human nature, to protect liberty, our society would be better off not trying to eliminate factions (which Madison said was impossible). Instead, we should try to make as many factions as possible so that no single group could get large enough that it could dominate and rule by fiat.
So far, so good, but how do you set up a government that recognizes the danger of factions and mitigates that danger? In England and much of the rest of the world, they created a parliamentary system wherein all those little factions (now political parties) all fight it out in elections and divide up the legislative seats across a number of political parties based on vote totals.
But given that we’d just fought a war to be rid of England, their system was largely rejected. Instead, we created a “winner take all” system of picking election winners. In, say, a state or congressional district, whoever gets the most votes is elected. Since you don’t divide the seats up by which party got what percentage of the votes, there is no value in being a third party that can never win a majority of the votes. Hence we have a two-party system that is built into the Constitution itself.
So, whereas in other nations people who don’t like the Democrats or the Republicans might find an alternative third party (e.g., the Greens, the Constitution Party, etc.), I’m guessing here they decide to be “independent.” And that creates both challenges and opportunities for candidates.
In Colorado, you just cannot win an election above the local level by only getting the votes of your own political party. Rather, you must get those votes, of course, but you must also do well among the independents. The road to 51% runs through “unaffiliated-town.” But given the wide variety of views in the indy world, candidates must be careful of what they say to whom.
In Colorado's current U.S. Senate race, recent Cory Gardner ads on various social media platforms assert that Gardner is actually a strong environmentalist, with shots of him walking through green fields and fishing in a stream. Those ads don’t mention his near-blind following of Donald Trump’s lead, of course, because he’s trying to reach a segment of the independent voters who value the environment highly. John Hickenlooper, on the other hand, has ads about business success and also tying Gardner to Trump as tightly as he can.
So what’s the bottom line on all this?
If Colorado is the new bellwether state, as I have argued, the rise in unaffiliated voters is a trend that will challenge both “main” parties in terms of coming up with a winning political strategy. Who will win? Stay tuned, and on Nov. 3 we’ll find out.