Growth of independents shows discontent among voters

Posted Oct. 17, 2012

By MELISSA CASTILLO
School of Communication
University of Miami

Americans use a variety of media to stay informed on political updates. Many of these provide the same story but with skewed information, for example, the universally known bias found in coverage aired on MSNBC and Fox. This has led the American public to feel disconnected from the media and government due to its doubt that it is being provided accurate news.

Because there are so many points of views and contradicting statements to question and process, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to use the labels Republican or Democrat to define their political standpoint.

Due to the variety of media and the suspicion of duplicitous statements, Americans don’t trust the media and government in the way they used to when there were only three news channels and most of their news came from their local newspapers. This growth of technology and suspicion has triggered the growth of unaffiliated voters.

“This is mainly because the trust in government has gone down,” said Dr. Casey Klofstad, assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Miami. “We feel more isolated from our government these days and this is why people don’t want to identify themselves with either party and want to shed party labels.”

The increase in news media and information has also brought on more issues for voters to take into consideration before making a choice. This includes judging a candidate’s character through televised presidential debates. The public can get a better idea of their personalities through these candid situations, as opposed to watching rehearsed speeches. Viewers are also exposed to how the candidates act with one another.

“The way disagreements are had has changed. Now it has turned into less respectful disagreements, such as politicians screaming across the table and calling each other names,” said Dr. Christopher Mann, assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Miami. “There was a time when it seemed as though politicians were gentile to one another. But now the media is no longer concerned about protecting their image. If anything, now they look to taint a politicians reputation by revealing incidents when they say or do something out of line.”

The public has most likely been influenced by the impudent behavior of some politicians and therefore react in a similar manner in political discussions with peers. The discussion can then easily turn into a heated argument. For this reason, people sometimes prefer not to voice their opinion.

“I’m completely for Romney, but if someone asks me, I always say I’m an independent, or sometimes I’ll even say I’m just not voting to avoid any tension,” said Hailey Hicks, Miami Dade College student. “All my friends are for Obama so why would I bother saying anything when I know they’ll just jump down my throat.”

In other cases, Americans find themselves standing between ideals of both parties. Someone may have a Republican point of view on economic issues and a Democrat point of view on social issues or vise versa.

Because of this, if a poll asks, do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican or independent, the most logical answer is independent. The dramatic rise of unaffiliated voters in comparison to Democrats and Republicans in recent years is seen clearly through polls found in the Roper Center Public Opinion Archives.

“This reflects two things, a growing disenchantment with the two-party system and parties are growing more polarized with ideologies,” Mann said.

The ideologies have been polarizing since around the 1960s and 1970s. This also coincides with the growing significance of independent voters in the political arena. A catalyst of the change in the general characteristics of a Republican and Democrat was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Prior to this, Democrats were typically those who supported segregation and believed in a small central government but when Roosevelt, a Democrat, implemented social programs, the beliefs of Democrats came into question.

“The traditional Democrat, who believed in segregation, decided they’re not really Democrat since they’re against civil rights and social government programs,” Klofstad explained. “Then there were the new Democrats, who were for civil rights. It sort of evolved into a two-headed snake.”

There were Democrats who decided they were Republicans and then there were Republicans who decided they were Democrats. Since the beliefs of each party were convoluted during the switch of political labels, some found themselves in the middle, unable to identify with either party. Now that the beliefs are explicit, some want to stray away from the confines of each party to avoid having their own beliefs misconstrued by a label.

“People will say that they’re kind of a Republican, then they’ll add, “but I’m not that sort of Republican, I don’t want you thinking I’m an Arizona type of Republican,’” Mann said. “The reasons for belonging have become a proliferation of different reasons, and therefore, people move away from wanting to be in a political party.”

The Political Identification graph shows there are less Republicans and Democrats than there were 50 years ago and therefore, the two party system has in fact grown weaker. But this is not to say that people have lost interest in the political system.

“I’ve voted the past couple elections, always Democrat, but I don’t see the point in calling myself one thing or another,” said Kendrick Leighton, Radiate FM Radio DJ. “I vote for who I vote for. I don’t care about the parties.”

Although there are more independents this presidential year than any other, voters still have an idea of which candidate they support.

By comparing two polls conducted by Gallup, it’s seen that there are consistently more people that refer to themselves as independent, yet there is a fairly even percentage that support Obama or Romney. This portrays a clear and growing pattern, individual candidates have become the primary determinant for some voters, as opposed to having loyalty to one party or the other. This also points to the fact that many who claim to be independent may still have a preference.

“This reveals that the identification of being independent doesn’t mean they don’t associate their opinion with one party or another,” Mann said. “Some respond by independent because they don’t agree with everything in any particular party.”

This concept is found in the way independent voters are sometimes categorized, as independent Democrat, independent Republican, or independent independent.

Also, the way to measure partisanship shows that not every Democrat or every Republican share the same beliefs and perceptions. A poll located in the Roper Center Public Opinion Archives emphasizes this idea by expanding the number of categories. A weak Democrat isn’t always going to agree with a strong Democrat, and therefore it leaves a possibility that their mind can be changed depending on the candidates.

The sub levels that are added to the pie graph outline the complex perceptions in most voters. Those that identify as strong Democrats and strong Republicans only make up 39 percent of the chart, leaving the rest of the population open to debate. This month will be crucial for the candidates since independent voters typically make their decision right before the election.

“As with most elections, weak partisans and leaners are more affected by the short term forces of the election than strong partisans,” said Adrian U. Ang, assistant professor in the Politics and International Relations Department at Florida International University. “They are more likely than strong partisans to deviate from the party vote.”

Another reason why their influence is significant is seen through the Party Identification graph, which shows that the unaffiliated voter is the fastest growing segment in the United States. While they have been increasing, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has been narrowing, giving neither party a particular advantage with the population. The Candidate Preference poll by Gallup shows that the percentage of Obama versus Romney supporters has been fluctuating by only a small amount each month,

“Independents will be very important because the race is basically tied and they are the only voters left to be convinced to turn out and vote,” said Dr. George Cvejanovich, chair and associate professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Barry University in Miami Shores. “The two major parties have a core of loyal supporters at about 40 percent of the voters each.  Not enough to win without the independents.”

Although some independents already carry some level of partisanship, they can still be persuaded since their basis for voting is the candidate not the party. And with the competitive race between Obama and Romney, every vote really counts.

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