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The Search for the Independent Voter

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

Warning: If you are an "Independent," you are about to get outed.

By "Independent" (quotes stressed), I mean a "leaner" as in someone who registers as an Independent , but who "leans" towards either of the two dominating parties, Democratic or Republican.

If the above statement pertains to you, you just might be in the closet. So why not just come out proudly and say you support the present day two party system?

According to Assistant Professor Matthew Baum of UCLA's Department of Political Science the reason may be, "Both major parties are currently extremely unpopular. There is a general dissatisfaction in the voting populace. People are upset with the Republicans in the White House and with the Democrats in Congress. Its now more socially acceptable to call oneself an Independent." Yet," he adds, "people still tend to not stray too far from their political beliefs."

UCLA Political Science professor Richard Anderson states, "To Americans, the notion of the word "independent" is positive, even though it begins with the "in," which is a negative prefix. Therefore the word "dependence" carries a negative connotation and is something bad. When people vote, they vote for the candidate that best matches their positive, psychological self-identification, which is itself the result of the unconscious processing of their socio-cultural experiences"

Still most of these end up in the middle of the two dominant political parties. So how independent can they be?

The answer may lay in the variances in definition of the terms "independent" and "independent voter" and the subsequent mind sets of those who choose one definition over another.

This is the definition of "independent voter" on Wikipedia : An independent voter is an enrolled voter who is explicitly not a member of any political party... those voters who's specific affiliation is not represented by a political party or who subscribe to an ideology other than those which are espoused by major political parties... desire for original and independent thought (author's emphasis).

For some voters, to be independent may mean they do not automatically vote for one dominant party or the other, but rather consider the "lesser of two evils" theory in choosing which party to vote for. Underlying this is the belief in the premise that there are significant differences between the two dominant parties, as miniscule as they may be. Still, others, arguably the smaller group, believe that to be truly independent is to vote one's convictions as opposes to voting for the candidate with the best chance of winning, even if that means voting for a third party candidate who may not have any real chance at all.

Political analyst Rhodes Cook calls such voters "pure independents", which, according to surveys conducted by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, is estimated to be about 5-10% of all registered voters over the last 50 years in elections for president and both houses of Congress . Yet, according to other polls conducted, 255 to 38% of all voters are registered "Independents." So what gives?

As originally published in The Rhodes Cook Letter, Cook cited that in all twenty-seven states that register voters by party, the number of registered Independents has risen nationally from 1994 to 2006 by 18- 25% rose while numbers for Republicans and Democrats stayed the same or actually fell. Most registered Independents are concentrated in the North East (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire) ,the Midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia,) and Alaska. Their numbers more than doubled in Arizona (13% to 27%,) Florida (9% to 22%,) Louisiana (10% to 21%,) and new Mexico (8% to 18%.) They actually dominate in number over Democrats or Republicans in three of those states (Connecticut, Iowa, and New Hampshire.)

However, according to several published surveys (Jonathan Rauch, Mark Hiller, and Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program who studied elections through 2004 and Raymond E. Wolfinger of the University of California at Berkeley, who cited data culled from the University of Michigan's American National Elections Studies regarding a study of independents from 1952 to 1988, in his publication, The Myth of the Independent Voter,) including the one cited above, the majority of registered Independents end up siding with either the Democrats or Republicans (although in the last decade they have been increasingly siding more with Democrats), which for some people, regarded as pure Independents, amounts to the same thing, which may be why they "throw away their vote" (please note, author's use of this term as sarcastic) on frequent presidential candidates like consumer advocate champion Ralph Nader or other third party candidates. Still, that's only 5-10% of those who bother to even vote. And that is never enough to win an election.

It is no wonder that Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) remains the only Independent member of Congress out of 535 members. Obviously, Joe Liberman doesn't count.

What about all the unregistered voters out there who help make up the percentage of the U.S. citizenry who do not vote? Might there be more pure independents within those ranks?

Prof. Baum thinks that may be possible due to the fact that, "Cynicism is inversely related to political involvement." This means that the more politically active one is, the more likely they will vote for a major party candidate; those that tend to be cynical about the current two party system tend to be ill-informed, ill-educated, economically poor, and not vote at all.

"Those who vote tend to be ideologically driven", says Prof. Baum. "True independents are just not as politically active."

When I asked Prof. Baum why he thought this was true, he stated, "We have a binary voting system, as opposed to a parliamentary system where many parties are represented. At the end of the day, you have a choice of two candidates."

Professor Anderson has a different take on people who don't vote: " If you're truly independent, you don't vote. If you vote, you're not an independent."

I can actually see his point; a non-conformist who initially rejects conformity is still ultimately conforming, except now its conforming to non-conformity. Similarly, a voter who rejects the Republicans and Democrats to support a third party candidate has psychologically identified with that person and the group of voters within the Green/Libertarian/Socialist/Other parties, and effectively loses their independent status. However, in reference to his idea stated earlier that the only pure independents are non-voters, even those people are not independent of being affected by the outcome of the system they choose not to participate in; in the bigger picture of an inter-connected world, nobody is.

If one were to accept Professor Anderson's assertion, then is there really any difference between people like myself, who may be well-educated, politically active, somewhat cynical, self-identified Independents who vote for the candidates we most identify with, regardless of party affiliation, and those other registered Independents who are actually "leaners?"

I say there is; Independents like myself would not see supporting Nader in 2000 as 'throwing away" our vote, whereas the other type of Independents would. We know Nader and other third party candidates have an almost impossible chance of winning any election with the current set up (there's the healthy dose of cynicism) but we vote for them anyway. Most closet Democrats and Republicans will not vote for a third party candidate, not because they may necessarily disagree with them (many actually agree with third party philosophies or secretly admire "second tier" major party candidates like Democrat Dennis Kucinich), but because they don't see that candidate as having a chance at winning. They may think,' Why back a losing horse?" These people also tend to think of the two major parties as radically different, whereas to the first group, its just all more of the same.

But again this distinction may be superfluous if, as Professor Anderson believes, our votes don't really matter in any decisive way anyway. It may just feel good to find someone else in which we can positively, psychologically self-identify. But that doesn't mean he thinks change is not possible.

He states, "Its actually idealistic to realize that the Democrats and Republicans are obstructive to change, being the beneficiaries of maintaining the present day system, and still believe change is possible."

Professor Baum agrees, stating, "Presently the two dominant parties are on the defensive. To say that there will or could never be any significant future political change would be cynical."

Yet it seems that all truly significant socio-political changes had grass-roots, community based beginnings. I'm sure the Democratic Party would love to take credit for all the progressive advancements since the days of FDR's New Deal, but my feeling is that the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Rights and Sexual Liberation Movement, and the Vietnam-era anti-war Movement all happened, irregardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in office. I would even say these movement happened not because of, but despite dominant control of government by two parties. As for future socio-political changes in our country, I'm certainly not holding my breath for either the Republicans or the Democrats to be leading at the forefront.

I believe that position will be held by those arising from the ranks of those cynical enough to stop pretending to play along with a game who's outcome seems consistently rigged, yet idealistic enough to continue to inspire other voters to wake up and stop throwing away their votes on the two parties most interested in maintaining the status quo. Then, when these voters tell people at the next social function that they are registered as Independents, they'll actually mean it.