Not of Either Party, Who Are They?

August 21, 2011

By Richard Gilman and Anna Consie

More than one million Arizona voters are not affiliated with either major political party.  They now outnumber Democrats and are steadily gaining on Republicans.  In Pinal County, the state’s fastest growing area, they have grown to outnumber both parties.

The groundswell is enormous.  Registered Democrats and Republicans each increased by 20 percent over the past 10 years.  Meanwhile, the unaffiliated voters expanded by a rather astonishing 160 percent.

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony Bustos

The sheer numbers suggest this amorphous group portends some new political order.  What’s more, their potential only increases as their size multiplies.  If somehow they were galvanized into a cohesive voting bloc, they could either:

  • Cement the current Republican advantage into an unassailable political monopoly.
  • OR give Democrats the support they need to take away the initiative from Republicans.
  • OR become a force onto themselves, serving as a moderating influence to bridge the extremes.

They could in the blink of an eye turn a number of legislative districts from uncompetitive to competitive.  They could call the shots in contested territory such as Pinal County, or at least determine who will.  They could at bare minimum influence the result in most every election, as they did in one if not two of the 2010 congressional races.  See story.

The beneficiary in that race was Republican Paul Gosar, who successfully courted unaffiliated voters to overcome a Democratic voter registration advantage in the 1st congressional district.  His campaign manager, JP Twist, says flatly: “Paul Gosar would not be in Congress without the independent voters.”

They are the great wild card in state politics.

Disconnected Or Rebellious?

How that card plays depends on some mighty big ifs.  By their very nature, these unaffiliated voters are independent – perhaps to the point of being disconnected.  Some of them, perhaps many, have rejected politics as usual.  Their phenomenal growth goes unexplained.  Perhaps it represents a growing devil-may-care indifference among the electorate.  Or, at the other extreme, it provides concrete evidence that a quiet rebellion – if not a revolution – is occurring beneath our very noses.

One does wonder.  How are they different, or the same, as diehard Republicans or Democrats?  Is there a political position, or overall approach, that will gain their fancy?   Can they be melded together in common cause?  Or are they fated to be powerless bystanders as politics continues on its merry way?

In search of answers, Thinking Arizona cross-tabulated the exit-poll data for the 2004, 2006, and 2008 elections (the data for the 2010 election are frustratingly not yet in the public domain).  The

exit polls are the work of the national pool of television networks and other news media that have been doing this for many years.  The analysis presented here is, to our knowledge, the first such examination of unaffiliated voters.

The analysis confirms certain assumptions and debunks others.

Independent voters are typically stereotyped as middle of the road, more neutral and nuanced in their views than the doctrinaire positions of Democrats and Republicans. The exit polls confirm that these unaffiliated voters – when aggregated together – are positioned at the center of the political spectrum.

They contrast sharply with members of the two political parties in Arizona who, for example, vote in respective lockstep in presidential elections.  Nearly 90 of every 100 Democrats who were polled said they voted for John Kerry in 2004.  The same percentage voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  On the other side of the political fence, nearly 90 of every 100 Republicans said they voted for George Bush in 2004.  And again for John McCain in 2008.

By comparison, unaffiliateds were much more divided.  Of every 100 unaffiliateds polled in 2004 and 2008, 55 said they voted for the Democrat, 41 or so voted for the Republican, and 3 or 4 said they voted for someone else.

The tilt to the left, it should be noted, is probably misleading.  The overall results of the exit polls skew to the Democratic side, with Democratic candidates generally faring better than they did in the actual elections.  The differences go somewhat beyond the margin of error found in any poll.  The additional skew could be attributable to issues of methodology, including the contention that women and Democrats are more likely than men and Republicans to agree to be interviewed as they exit the polls. As a result, the focus of this Thinking Arizona report should be on the big picture and not percentage-point differences.

The centrist tendency of unaffiliateds is repeated in response to question after question.  See a further examination.

Showing up somewhere between the partisan positions of the two political parties does not mean though that they always land exactly in the middle.  The exit polls show, for instance, that the unaffiliateds fall out of step with Republicans on a number of current cultural issues such as illegal immigration and banning same-sex marriage.  In aggregate they are not as forgiving on these issues as Democrats, but are more tolerant than the Republicans.

Missing Questions

Unfortunately, the exit polls results do not identify the converse – where unaffiliateds part company with the Democrats.  This is partly a function of the questions asked.  A number of poll questions, including the standard demographic questions about age, education, etc., are carried over from election to election. Other of the queries are devoted to the hot issues of the moment.  To see a sample of the poll (click on DS4 Arizona Data:  Questionnaire).

Getting all those questions answered crowds out any additional areas of inquiry, for instance regarding fiscal policy.  As a result, it can’t be told whether unaffiliateds break with Democrats on tax-and-spend policies, as one possibility, or whether it is over something else entirely.

Even though the exit polls don’t fill in all the blanks, one can see in theory how the centrist tendencies of unaffiliated voters make them accessible to either party – should one or the other really try to capture them.  Or how, to take a different approach, their centrism could be bottled into a viable political alternative.

A deeper examination shows, however, that their hand is not quite as strong as the big numbers would suggest.  The wild card might not trump all else.

The trouble begins with the fact that the independents are – surprise! surprise! – independent.  Not just of the political parties, but of each other as well.  A sample of their viewpoints.

Part of the division is a matter of classification.  Independents are smudged together with a lot of other unaffiliated voters in a catch-all category that the Secretary of State’s office, which oversees voter registration, calls “Other.”  While the media – including this website – frequently refer to the entire category as “independents,” that is likely a misnomer.  The Secretary of State’s office was unable to provide numbers for the state as a whole, but in Pinal County only 21 percent of the unaffiliateds were actually self-declared independents.

More Than Just Independents

The great majority – 78 percent – of those causing the surge of unaffiliateds in Pinal register with no party allegiance. Because that designation is given to everyone who doesn’t fill in the spot on the registration form, it is impossible to know for certain whether the high incidence  is the result of intention or indifference.  But one elected official there says it’s anything but the latter.  Pinal County is changing quickly.

The exit polls, meanwhile, ask voters to identify themselves either as Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Something Else.  All who responded yes to either of the last two choices, even though it unavoidably includes the negligible one percent of voters who are registered either as Libertarians and Green Party, are referred to in this report as unaffiliated.

Some are blasé if not oblivious of their status.  One man, when told his registration status by a telephone interviewer, asked in surprise: “I’m an independent?”  He then sheepishly acknowledged he doesn’t vote.

He is not alone in this disregard.

Tucson-based political consultant Rodd McLeod, who managed the re-election campaign of Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in a district where her party is outnumbered by Republicans, maintains that the voter registration numbers are not nearly as important as the number of them who turn out to vote.  And, he says, it’s tougher to get independents to the polls.

Figures provided by the Democratic Party bear him out.  In the 2006 and 2010 general elections,

7 of every 10 registered Republicans voted, as did 6 out of 10 registered Democrats.  By comparison, 5 of 10 unaffiliateds voted in 2006.  In 2010, it was only 4 of 10.  In effect, that reduces the unaffiliateds from approaching one-third of the registered electorate to being under one-quarter of the voting electorate.

Part of the explanation may be that even the more aware and deliberate of the unaffiliateds have a weaker connection, emotionally and perhaps intellectually, with the candidates of either party. A Tucson couple, both of whom declare themselves to be independents, said their allegiance is not to partisan positions or to particular candidates, but to the quest for common-sense solutions to the nation’s problems.  An editorial comment.

As they put it:  “We’re not connected to the guy.  We’re connected to the result.” They set the bar pretty high, and admit they don’t always vote.

Unlike partisans who habitually end up voting the same way, the unaffiliateds who do vote are more likely to judge and more willing to jump ship.  In 2004, 38 percent said that rather than voting for one of the presidential candidates, they were mainly voting against the opponent.  That was more than either Democrats or Republicans.  In the same election, 22 percent said neither candidate was equipped to handle the economy, and 17 percent said neither was up to handling the war on terrorism.

The challenges of appealing to the unaffiliateds,

much less organizing them into a cohesive voting bloc, are further compounded by the differences the Thinking Arizona study found in their political ideology – or rather, ideologies.

One might assume all unaffiliateds would be moderates, but that’s far from the case. The exit polls show, not to the surprise of those in politics, that they range across the political spectrum.  Of every 100 unaffiliated exit-poll respondents, 50 considered themselves moderates, 25 said they were conservatives and the remaining 25 were liberals.

Voting Patterns Differed Accordingly

They voted very differently from each other.    The conservative unaffiliateds tended to vote with Republicans, though not in quite the same high percentages.  The same pattern held true on the other side, as the liberal unaffiliateds rather reliably lined up with Democrats.

To demonstrate, let’s go back to the presidential elections of ’04 and ’08.  Nearly 90 of 100 Republicans voted for Bush, then four years later voted in the same numbers for McCain.  Conservative independents tilted heavily in the same direction, though not in quite the same proportions.  In their case, 70 of 100 voted Republican.

On the opposing side, only 10 or so of every 100 Democrats voted for the Republican candidates.  Liberal independents joined in this rejection in nearly equally low numbers.  Only 13 of every 100 liberal independents voted for Bush.  That rose to 19 of 100 who voted for home-stater McCain.

In one instance, the liberal independents even out-liberal the Democrats, who are a mixture of moderates and liberals.  Liberal independents, who skew more heavily to the 20-somethings than do other categories of voters, looked even more askance at the cultural issues pushed by Republicans than did the Democrats.  They, for instance, were most opposed in 2004 to the amendment that required proof of citizenship to vote, and then in 2006 and again in 2008 were most against banning same-sex marriage.  More than any other group, they favored granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.

Some of the poll questions simply ask thumbs up or down on a candidate or ballot proposition.  In two-thirds of those cases, the percentages of liberal and conservative unaffiliateds voting for and against came closer to matching Democrats and Republicans than they did to matching moderate unaffiliateds.

The moderates were left to uphold the centrist mantle.  And they did.  Their voting pattern most frequently split down the middle, as they voted in near equal numbers – somewhere between 40 and 60 percent – for and against most candidates and policy positions.  By comparison, all the other groups tended to be more unified for or against.  Higher percentages of them were apt to vote for one side, leaving lower percentages for the other.

Thus, while the ever-growing classification of Arizona voters variously called “independents,” “other” or “unaffiliated” may be lumped together for practical purposes, their politics are not created equal.  They encompass not one but at least three distinct voting tendencies.

One-quarter are allied with the Republican camp.  Another quarter are allied with the Democratic camp.  While they are not party regulars, they enlarge each party accordingly.  That cuts the true middle to half of what the big numbers suggest, though still amounting to 500,000 of the 3.2 milllion voters in the state.

The unaffiliateds are an odd lot.  Their numbers are ever-growing. They could bridge the extremes.  On the other hand, they divide among themselves, deliberately keep themselves one step removed, and don’t always show up at the polls.

They are the wild card.  Maybe not an ace in the hole that wins hands down, at least not yet.  Maybe more the queen of spades that, depending on how they’re played, represents either a threat . . . or opportunity.

Anna Consie is a graduate student in journalism at Arizona State University.  Thanks also to Steve Doig, a journalism professor at ASU, for preparing the initial cross-tabulations used in this report.

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