Partied Out

A Nation of Free Agents

By Marc Ambinder
Sunday, September 3, 2006

For the first time since presidential candidate Ross Perot won nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992, technology, egos and politics are colluding to lower the barriers to entry for credible independent candidates for national office.

Signs abound that voters are moving beyond the two major parties and testing the free-agent market. And politicians are responding; the put-yourself-above-partisanship orientation is spreading, even during this midterm election season, when candidates typically seek to rouse the passions of their partisans.

This trend goes far beyond Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who could become the first mainstream incumbent elected as an independent senator in 30 years. Take conservative Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.). The first television ad of his reelection campaign began with a narrator cautioning that "most people don't care if you're red or blue. Republican or Democrat. They don't use words like 'partisan' or 'obstructionist.' " Or Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), who told voters in an ad that "I believe that neither Republicans nor Democrats are always right. I angered Republicans when I voted against the war in Iraq, and Democrats when I voted for legal reform."

The message is clear: Our candidate will work for you, not for a party.

Gallup polls suggest that voters' willingness to reelect incumbents is at one of the lowest levels in half a century. Independent voters comprise about 10 percent of the electorate, but the percentage of persuadable independents has shot up to about 30 percent. In the 27 states that register voters by party, self-declared independents grew from 8 percent of the registered electorate in 1987 to 24 percent in 2004, according to political analyst Rhodes Cook. Consistently, about 30 percent of U.S. voters tell pollsters they don't belong to a party.

John Avlon, author of "Independent Nation," has noted that nearly 39 percent of Iowa voters are registered independents. And among new registrants in New Hampshire, 85 percent decline to identify with a political party. A swing state such as Pennsylvania has nearly 1 million independent voters; Florida has almost twice that many who refuse to register R or D.

One theory -- held mainly by Republicans -- is that these new independents are just closet liberals who are ashamed to be identified as such. Instead of adopting a cleaner euphemism (say, "progressive"), these voters mask their Democratic identity with an inoffensive term such as "moderate." A second view suggests that these voters hail from American suburbia, their wide, manicured lawns separating them from the old-line Democratic city machines and inward-looking pockets of conservatives.

Neither explanation tells the full story. These non-affiliated voters tend to be less fiscally liberal than the Democratic mean and less socially conservative than the Republican mean. And regardless of whether non-affiliated voters lean in any particular direction, there is evidence that their influence is growing just as key instruments of party control are breaking down.

Republicans couldn't prevent a nasty gubernatorial primary in Florida. An upstart almost succeeded in upending the governor of Nebraska. A state senator was inches away from petitioning himself onto the ballot against the Republican governor of South Carolina. Democrats in Massachusetts tried to anoint a front-runner, the state's attorney general, who is now third in the polls in the gubernatorial race. Conservative activists are challenging their establishment through a proxy war in Rhode Island; Chafee is in real danger of losing his GOP primary to insurgent Steve Laffey, the mayor of Cranston. These same forces defeated Rep. John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz (R-Mich.),who was endorsed by President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Both parties have well-financed internal agitators who yank tight the chains of ideological discipline -- think of MoveOn.Org on the left and the Club for Growth on the right. Democrats are re-fighting the decades-old battle between centrists and liberals. The Republican base is fracturing around fiscal probity, immigration and cultural issues.

As the distance between the parties widens, plenty of voters are left outside both circles.

The Democratic and Republican parties profess not to worry, but they are tripping over themselves to figure out how to reach these free agents. Presidential hopefuls for 2008 in both parties have settled on pragmatism as a grand narrative. Both McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani self-consciously parade their independence. The Democratic candidate of the moment, former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner, unabashedly renounces orthodox philosophy as he travels around the country, as does Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). Potential presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) regularly calls on voters to reject the ideological thinking she attributes to Republicans.


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