The Rise of Independents in PA
When Governor Rendell renamed the state’s logo, the “State of Independence”, it’s probably wasn’t meant to be a pun. While Democrats have widened their party registration advantage over Republicans in the state in recent years, the real untold story is the rapid increase of new registrants with neither the Republican nor Democratic Parties. From 1996 to 2007, the percentage of Pennsylvania residents registering as either Independent or with another third party went up a whopping 43%, currently 984,349, and poised to hit the one million mark this year. In comparison, Republican registrations increased 10%, while Democrats increased their numbers 14% in the same period. One can most likely attribute this independent surge to the dissatisfaction many Pennsylvanians feel towards the current two-party system. Our polling indicates that a majority of Pennsylvania voters believe the state is not headed in the right direction. Voters are anxious to change the status quo and the first step is to disassociate with the establishment. The recent trend of the state becoming more independent has the potential to fundamentally alter to political landscape in Pennsylvania.
One need only look to neighboring New Jersey to see the potential impact a strong independent block can have on the electoral process, where Independent and so-called “undeclared” voters are already the dominant party. Our polling in New Jersey continually shows that these Independent-type voters are really the “swing” voters who can break for either Republican or Democrat candidates depending on the kind of election year. For instance, in the 2006 midterm congressional elections in New Jersey, Independents voted mainly Democratic and helped contribute to Republican losses that trickled down to the elected officials at the county level, while in the 2007 municipal and state legislative elections, Independents voted Republican in Republican-leaning areas, and Democratic in Democratic-leaning areas, and thus helped preserve the status quo in many cases and even helped Republicans increase their majorities in some instances. In Pennsylvania, our polling shows that Independent voters definitely align more with the Democratic Party on most issues. Similar to trends among Democrats, Independent voters disapprove of the job President George W. Bush is doing by a 62/20 margin, but approve of Governor Rendell’s job approval by a 54/29 margin. When asked if they would be more likely to vote “Republican” or “Democrat” in the next election for governor, Independents lean Democratic by a 30/18 margin, a clear sign they’ll be much more approachable for the Democratic nominee for governor. In addition, our polling shows Independent voters care most about issues like the economy, healthcare and education, all issues Democrats are typically viewed as credible on, in comparison to Republican voters who care more about things like reducing taxes and controlling illegal immigration.
However, the silver lining for the GOP may be that Independent voters have very low vote frequency, and at present get inspired to vote mainly in presidential election years, so their impact at the polls is minimal similar to the lack of influence younger voters have. According to voter files, more than one-third of all Independents, or 37%, has absolutely no vote history in general elections from 2003 to 2006, while only 20% voted in at least two of the last four general elections. So the real challenge is getting these voters to the polls, or they risk being labeled a paper tiger. With the rising anti-incumbent sentiment both at the state and federal level, and the increasing ability of third-party good government groups to communicate and organize via the internet, the “blogasphere” and other ways, it behooves elected officials in both parties to show reverence to these voters, and work more aggressively to cultivate them. For the Democrats, it may be a long way off before these voters could make the difference in national elections, but a simple bump in voter turnout from these voters could definitely mean the difference in elections down ballot, particularly at the state legislative or county level. For the GOP, it means they run the risk of further alienating these voters if they appear too strident on the cultural issues of the day, which can ultimately lead to GOP nominees becoming perceived as more unelectable in general elections.