More voters declare their independence

New Hampshire epitomizes a trend as Americans increasingly opt to shed

Priscilla Gimmel can think for herself, thank you, and so far, this New Hampshirite is leaning toward Bill Bradley (D) or John McCain (R).

It doesn't much matter to her that a gulf divides the two presidential candidates on most issues (campaign-finance rules excepted), or which primary she votes in come Feb. 1. She, like a growing share of the fabled New Hampshire electorate, is independent - one of the undeclared voters who many analysts say could sway the 2000 election.

"I can't really explain it," Ms. Gimmel says of her interest in the maverick candidates. "Sometimes we vote for people because of a gut feeling."

In one sense, Gimmel is a prototype for the American voter at the close of the 20th century: apolitical but not apathetic, disaffected with the parties but serious about citizenship. And their ranks are growing, seemingly by the moment.

Across the US, 16 percent of the voting population is officially "independent" - an 800 percent increase from 30 years ago. Unofficially, 38 percent of Americans 18 and over consider themselves politically independent of any party, according to a Gallup poll.

The trend is even stronger in New Hampshire, where New England's don't-tell-me-what-to-think spirit might account for undeclareds becoming - for the first time - the largest voting bloc in the state.

"To have independents be as large as either party is extraordinary," says Constantine Spiliotis, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The big question for Feb. 1, when New Hampshire kicks off the primary season, is "do independents come out and vote?"

While conventional wisdom says no - or at least, not as often - Brian Hart says he'll be there.

"Definitely - not a chance that I won't," says the twentysomething environmental activist from Madbury, N.H. He registered as an independent because he likes the freedom to be able to vote in either primary. "It's truly democratic."

In New Hampshire, undeclared voters - the majority of whom are middle-class women under 45 - pick the primary they want to vote in, register for that party as they step into the polling booth, and then change their affiliation back to independent on their way out the door. Mr. Hart, who voted in the Republican primary in 1996, says he still hasn't decided which ballot he'll be filling out in February.

In addition to wanting to keep all options open, the rise of independents is partly due to the "motor voter" law, which makes it easier to register to vote.

But more ominous for the parties is a growing detachment - or even disgust - voters feel toward them. A lack of local party activism means people don't feel loyal to a particular party, or feel that the parties are particularly loyal to them.

"[The number of undeclared voters] will continue to grow nationwide as long as parties continue to be as they are - misaligned and lacking in grass roots," says Curtis Gans, head of the Committee to Study the American Electorate in Washington.

That leaves openings for a third party and for candidates positioning themselves as outsiders in their own parties.

Hart, for one, likes Mr. Bradley's and Senator McCain's focus on campaign-finance overhaul and their more candid deportment. "The other candidates seem too polished," he says. But neither man, he says, has focused on another issue dear to his heart - the preservation of open land.

While Bradley and McCain supporters might dream of hordes of independent voters rushing the ballot boxes to vote for them, experts caution that it's dangerous to look at undeclared voters as a solid mass. Not only are they a horse of a different color, but every one comes in a different shade. That's why predicting how the independents are going to vote is like trying to catch feathers in a wind tunnel.

"If Colin Powell had run in 1996, [independents] would have voted for him," says Mr. Gans. In this race, he doesn't see a figure strong enough to capture the collective imaginations of the independents.

Nor does it follow that a Democratic-leaning independent will vote in the Republican primary if she doesn't like her options, they point out. She just may not vote at all.

Many describe themselves as "fiscal conservatives, social moderates," which experts say means they'd be likely to relate to the more centrist policies of Vice President Al Gore (D) and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). Given the political distance between Bradley and McCain, few observers believe independents will be engaging in a "second race" between "maverick" candidates.

The lack of an (R) or a (D) by their names doesn't mean independents don't gravitate toward one party or the other. In fact, those who lean either left or right are just as partisan as the most dedicated party faithful, says Andy Smith of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

And among the truly independent, apolitical doesn't necessarily equal apathetic. Mr. Spiliotis sees an increasing number of people who are active in political causes, although they stay far away from anything that smacks of partisanship. "Young people are finding different ways to express their civic-mindedness."

For example, Hart works to establish a foundation to protect his state's open spaces.

And while Gimmell calls herself "one of the least interested people in politics in the state," the semiretired widow from Concord, N.H., raises money for causes she cares about, including humanities and arts councils and the Circle Program for disadvantaged girls.

While their impact may not be strongly felt during the primaries, undeclared voters could become a factor in the general election. "Some people will switch over, which could make a difference in a close race," says Mr. Smith.

A close race could also bring out the independents in greater numbers. "If you tell people enough times that they're the decisive factor, they'll turn up and vote," says Spiliotis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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