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This 4th of July: The dawn of a new 'independents' day

A record-high 38 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents. Republican and Democratic party leaders ignore this growing lack of party allegiance at their peril. Whichever party shifts to accommodate more moderate voters first will survive and even thrive.

By Amy E. Black / July 2, 2012

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio meets with reporters following a GOP strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington May 31. Republicans are acutely aware that the presidential and congressional this fall are expected to turn on a thin margin of independent voters neither party can afford to alienate. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black affirms: independents' 'lack of willingness to align with a party suggests the parties have an image problem.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/file


Wheaton, Ill.

This July 4th, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, a different type of independence is growing in size and influence – political independents, those voters who choose not to align with either major party.

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A recent Pew Research Center poll captured headlines with its report that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is widening into a significant gulf. That's indeed noteworthy, but the data reveal an equally important political development that risks getting overlooked. A record-high 38 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents.

That's more than those who align with Democrats (about a third) or Republicans (about a quarter). The shift is most striking among younger generations – 45 percent of Millennials and 42 percent of Generation Xers.

What might this rise foretell?

Although the numbers suggest there is political space for a third party to succeed, the American political system provides strong incentives for voters and political elites to align with two, and only two, parties.

Most elections in the United States allow only one winner, and whoever receives the most votes wins. If many parties competed for a single seat, a person could win office with 20 percent, 15 percent, or even fewer votes, leaving almost everyone dissatisfied.

At the presidential level, if more than two candidates seriously contend the general election, the chance of anyone winning a majority in the Electoral College narrows. And strong third-party candidates are often considered "spoilers." Many Democrats still grumble over Ralph Nader "stealing" the 2000 election from Al Gore, while many Republicans complain about Ross Perot helping Bill Clinton in 1992.

In this primary season, the grass-roots group Americans Elect attempted to make a way for a nonpartisan presidential candidate. It failed miserably. No candidate earned enough support to cross the threshold to nomination.

What are the options for independent candidates, if not a third party? Our system is stacked against them, too. Ballot-access requirements, major fundraising networks, and winner-take-all elections offer significant advantages to candidates with party backing. Primaries in most states exclude independent voters or force them to choose sides.

Independent and third-party candidates made it onto the ballot in only 18 percent of state contests between 2000 and 2009, winning about 2 percent of the races they entered.

Independents are most likely to succeed when they are tied to a party (like Sen. Joe Lieberman, the career-Democrat who won reelection as an independent after losing a primary) or are in idiosyncratic political places like Maine and Vermont. Independent US Senate candidate Angus King is capturing media attention and may very well win his senatorial bid in Maine; but his candidacy is an outlier, not the bellwether.


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