Are Independent Voters the Wave of the Future?

posted by Joe Gandelman on September 25, 2006 - 7:51am

Joe GandelmanAre independents voters the key to Democratic and Republican victories in 2006 and perhaps 2008? Or have the two parties become so repugnant to some voters that even that conventional wisdom could be outmoded?

There is an increasing school of thought that perhaps the country is heading out of its bile-filled "mobilization election" era where political party bigwigs can just press a little hot-button and voters registered for their party will angrily flock to the polls to save the USA from being destroyed by members of the other party.

But is that a pipe dream — one that will look silly in the next weeks heading up to Election Day and after the votes are counted?

We recently saw two events that underscored on the role partisan partisanship plays in this country:

#1: The hitch between President George Bush and several key Republican Senators including Senator John McCain over detainee interrogations. A highly-touted compromise emerged from this battle between Republicans.

The Democrats chose to stay out of the battle (which some Democrats consider a big mistake). In the end, the White House and GOP dissidents compromised. As complete details emerge, will it turn out that this compromise was essentially (another) rubber stamp for the executive branch by other Republicans? There are already now many voters (including some traditional conservatives) who believe our early 21st-Century experiment in one party government has proven to be a big, fat — and dangerous — failure.

#2: Fox News' Chris Wallace's interview with former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton angrily charges he was misled into being invited to be interviewed on one subject only to have Wallace in effect accuse him in his questions of not doing enough on 911. Clinton suggested that Fox has been more defense lawyer than prosecutor of the Bush administration when it comes to questions (noted by the 911 Commission) about Fox News' favorite President's pre-911 decisions, actions and nonactions.

In fact, this "bait and switch" technique, is not unknown among broadcast journalists; it's far easier for an interview subject to walk out on a print journalist than on a broadcast journalist who has a camera on while trying to provoke and broadly define the subject for his viewers in the (often pre-ordained) way he sees fit. That's exactly the thrust of what Wallace did. Clinton saw it and called him on it.

What was notable here was conservative commentators' near obsessive reaction once they learned about Clinton's reaction and what he dared to say. Their reaction confirmed that all the high-sounding talk and words written about the bitter "Bush hatred" on the left was partisan posturing and positioning. Partisan personal and political hatred for Bill Clinton is just as sneeringly strong and hysterical as it was years ago, a virtual mirror-image of some of the Bush hatred on the far left. (As for Wallace, he showed that he is a fine interviewer who should be transferred to Fox's Hannity and Colmes where he can do his editorializing-by-interview more openly.)

Has fierce partisanship and one party rule meant more competent government, where many options are seriously considered or the inexorable triumph of dogmatic forces on every issue (we'll know more on the interrogation compromise later)?

Has it bred such intense personal hatred towards political figures and those of other parties that if it goes much farther there could eventually be some kind of unfortunate incident?

And, the big question, do those Americans who are tired of a partisanship that has begun to in some cases border on fanaticism matter in terms of numbers and hard-nosed influence?

Thoughtful views on this question come from two commentators.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, who is now the editorial director of, based in Washington, D.C., believes non-partisans are fed up and that this could hurt the Democrats in the end. In a piece on the CBS website titled "What If You Want To Vote Them All Out?" he notes the victories of Democrat Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and Republican Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. He writes, in part:

So why aren't the political meteorologists confidently predicting that Hurricane Democrat will pick up the House and Senate?

Three reasons: Joe Lieberman, Lincoln Chafee and tactics. I'd add one more: the bankruptcy of the two-party system.

He goes into some detail and then has this as his conclusion:

I am not in the prediction racket. But my own hunch that this will be a status quo election comes from believing that this is a hard year for non-partisan or anti-partisan voters — the majority of voters — to cast meaningful protest votes.

Congress is almost as unpopular as the president. Voting for Democrats, if you're independent-minded, is a lousy way to protest. Many "unpartisans" — most, I'd wager — think their post-war posturing and preening has been so transparent, so craven and so lacking a positive agenda that they almost seem like the Republicans' enabling spouse. Together, they bicker, they blame and that's the whole game.

That's how I see it. So even if the Democrats do capture the House or the Senate, I don't think it will mark a big change for the country.

So Meyer (whose piece need to be read in full so go to the link) feels confident enough that "unpartisan" voters are disgusted enough by the Democrats as well as the Republicans to leave the Congress the way it is.

The Washington Post's David Broder sees centrists and independent-minded politicos in the ascension. He points to Senator John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as the people in both parties to watch.

He's also pessimistic about the obstacles facing voters and candidates who seek less lockstep politicking. Broder points to all the political talent mentioned above and says 2008 could be a banner year for independents, then writes:

But is this rosy scenario likely? Look at the powerful forces working against it. Congress is rigged to promote partisanship and extremism. Most congressional districts are drawn to favor one party or the other, and contests take place only in primaries, where low turnouts favor candidates who appeal to the motivated extremes. The flow of special-interest money into congressional races adds to this tilt, and now the bloggers are pummeling anyone who deviates from their definition of ideological purity.

The sequencing of presidential primaries, it is said, has the same effect on the race for the White House. Democratic aspirants have to satisfy the lefties to win Iowa, just as Republicans must placate the religious right to have a chance in South Carolina.

All that may be true. But still the forces of the independent center are gaining. The public disgust with the breakdown of Congress as a functioning institution has liberated more House and Senate candidates to challenge the status quo. They may be the same people, but they're not behaving the same way.

And the political environment is changing. More and more traditional conservatives are complaining that the Bush administration is wrecking their heritage, with its reckless military, foreign and fiscal policies and its disregard for the law. I hear this regularly and have reported it. David Brooks has been making that same point in his influential New York Times columns.

The tide is turning against dogmatism — and toward political independence.

Will the votes, too?

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I think it's important to distinguish what happens in the halls of Congress from what takes place in a television studio. One is debate and policymaking, while the other is simply entertainment.

I also don't see the Geneva Conventions as a classic "Democrat" vs. "Republican" discussion. The Minimum Wage vs. The Estate Tax? You bet. But that went nowhere, not toward the center.

I actually think McCain, Werner and others were standing on principle in opposing the attempt of the Bush admistration to unilaterally dismantle a key part of the Geneva Conventions. But Congress always has more power during a lame-duck second term of a sitting president. They were highly vocal in their opposition because they knew they had the upper hand. They knew they could win.

As far as Chris Wallace and Bill Clinton getting in each other's faces - well, as they say on Broadway: "That's Entertainment." That's what America asks for and that's what it gets. Turned off? Not on your life - this stuff's better than "Survivor!"

Clinton agreed to sit down in a conservative TV studio because it's between Labor Day and November 7th and he wanted to help the Democrats. He knew exactly what he was getting into.

Chris Wallace wanted ratings. He got 'em.

As far as judging the consevative reaction by looking at blogs? Please. On-line forums tend more toward the extreme than cable TV does - this "shoutbox" included. It's the only way to really make yourself heard, unfortunately.

Show me some scientific polling data. I'll bet Bill Clinton generates favorable ratings across all but the rabid right portion of the political spectrum.

I'm amazed at the forsight the founders had. For this is not the first time Independents has been needed to balance the body politic in the United States. For without Independent participation the liberal and conservative perspectives push apart creating extremism, a form of facism if you will. If we had 1/3 Independents in congress (regardless of who) it would bring both extremes back to the middle and allow the legislative process to resume. For it is not the system that is making the mistake - it is us hard headed Americans who won't go down and change our party from either facist view and register as Independents. For this is the build in mechanism our founding fathers gave us to prevent extremism. - Earn Snyder
Author "$aving the bureaucracy - Killing the beast"
Modern Progressive Independent

I certainly hope independent voters are the wave of the future. I hope that is the point of unity 08 and I am on board as long as they proceed to do what they say they want to. If they ever deviate I'll bail out in a New York minute.

Am spending some time at - strongly suggest you all checking it out. It makes no pretense of direct political action as does '08, but all the trends are there. More left leaning than I would have expected but lots of great well articulated dialogue, weekly polls, numerous threads (loops in their parlance), etc.

I don't know where Unity '08 will ultimately wind up but know we have kindred spirits at

Mark Greene
Texas Democrat in the Middle

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