Party’s over? Record voters say they’re Independents, reject 'D' and 'R'

Record numbers of American voters are rejecting both major political parties – Democrat and Republican. Instead, according to new poll findings, they’re registering to vote as Independents in increasing numbers.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Patricia Armstrong, center, with Willie Mae Allen, left, and Tony Barros, right, dance on the opening night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Call it a political plague on both your houses, to mangle Shakespeare. But record numbers of American voters are rejecting both major political parties – Democrat and Republican. Instead, according to new poll findings, they’re registering to vote as Independents in increasing numbers.

Specifically, according to new Gallup findings, the number of self-declared Independents has climbed to a record 43 percent, the highest number since the pollster began tallying such figures  back in 1988 – leaving Democrats and Republicans trailing far behind at 30 percent and 26 percent respectively.

Although polling methods have changed over the years, writes Gallup researcher Jeffrey Jones, “It is safe to say the average 30 percent identifying as Democrats last year is the lowest since at least the 1950s.”

As for the GOP, Mr. Jones writes, “Not since 1983, the year before Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election victory, have fewer Americans identified as Republicans.”

Why this rejection of “D” and “R” in favor of “I?” Partisan gridlock and dissatisfaction with government, driving favorability ratings for both parties to a point at or near historic lows (36 percent for Democrats, 42 percent for Republicans).

Here, the numbers are more volatile, moving up or down according to political happenings: The afterglow to President Obama’s reelection in 2012 (when the D’s enjoyed a brief 51 percent favorability rating), then his party’s shellacking in the 2014 midterms driving the number back down into the 30s. The collapse of the R’s favorability to 28 percent after the 2013 government shutdown, then a rise in parallel with the November midterms.

In any case, the trends in public political outlook and perceptions – including as they relate to political parties – are not good, experts observers say.

The low voter turnout last November “likely heralds a new stage in the disintegration of the American political order,” warn political scientists Walter Dean Burnham (University of Texas) and Thomas Ferguson (University of Massachusetts) in a piece at “Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests.”

In another recent research piece, professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) point to why many Americans are turned off by partisan politics based on perceptions about “who really rules.”

"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy," they write, "while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

But back to party affiliation and what Gallup reports is the rise of Independents.

Like the religious confessional, the voting booth is private and personal, or at least it’s meant to be. Voting doesn’t exactly pattern party registration. Reagan Democrats certainly proved that in 1980.

In one of its follow-up questions, Gallup also asks which way Independents are “leaning” – Democrat or Republican.

When “leaners” are added to those who identify themselves as D or R, the totals rise to 45 percent as Democrat and 42 percent as Republican.

Writing in the Washington Post, political scientist John Sides at George Washington University says this is more important than formal party affiliation.

“Why is it more important?” he writes. “Because independents who lean toward a party – or ‘independent leaners’ – behave like partisans, on average. They tend to be loyal to their party’s candidate in elections. They tend to have favorable views of many political figures in their party. They are not much more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. To be sure, independent leaners are not as partisan as the strongest partisans. But they resemble weaker partisans much more than they do real independents. In actuality, real independents make up just over 10 percent of Americans, and a small fraction of Americans who actually vote.

Still, the trend toward non-party identification is likely to continue.

“Given historical trends, 2015 could bring a new record, as the percentage identifying as independents typically increases in the year before a presidential election, averaging a 2.5-point increase in the last six such years,” writes Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones. “Americans' frustration with the frequent political stalemate is evident. Continued frustration with the government would likely encourage more Americans to identify as independents this year.”

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