Side effect of divisive politics? Unaffiliated voter numbers rise.


With a little over two weeks to go before the midterm election, both parties are nervously watching to see which way voters not affiliated with either Democrats or Republicans will choose to cast their ballots — or if they vote at all.

If they choose to go to the polls, numbers suggest nonpartisan voters could swing close races. A January Gallup poll found they make up 42 percent of Americans. That’s well ahead of the 29 percent who say they are Democrats and 27 percent who identify as Republican.

Unaffiliated, or nonpartisan voters, are often broadly called independents. But they should not be confused with members of the American Independent Party or the Independent American Party, which are party registration choices for voters in some states. Despite their names, those are considered minor parties that historically lean further right.

The unaffiliated momentum can be seen in Nevada, where those voters make up nearly a third of the state’s electorate. Nonpartisanship is even on November’s ballot there in the form of Question 3, which asks voters if they want to change to an open primary system, where unaffiliated voters can vote for a Republican or a Democrat without declaring a party. Fifteen states have open primaries.

Another state to watch when it comes to this voting bloc is North Carolina. In March, unaffiliated voters became the largest voting group in the state.

Christopher Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University, recently co-wrote research examining the rise of the unaffiliated voter in North Carolina and nationally. “Voters are signaling something to us. A lot of smart folks might disagree with me and say, ‘Look, so many of these are shadow partisans. Don’t worry about them,’ ” said Cooper, referring to voters who say they are nonpartisan but lean toward one party mostly. “I think the voters are trying to say they may not be able to escape the two-party system, but they’re going to push back on it when they can.”

Cooper gives further insight on this voting bloc in a Q&A with The Washington Post. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

From your research, what did you find out about the makeup of unaffiliated voters?

Cooper: We found that demographically they sort of sit as a bridge between the two major parties. They’re not as diverse as the Democratic Party, but they’re more diverse than the Republican Party. They’re also really, really young. The unaffiliated has become the largest group in North Carolina, but it’s been the largest group among young people for a number of years. So the growth is primarily young people and in-migrants to the state. Party switchers are a part of this. They’re more than a drop in the bucket, but they’re not more than a few drops.

This rise of unaffiliated voters, is it a trend that you think will continue on, or is just temporary right now?

Cooper: I don’t see it really slowing down any time soon. Eventually, clearly, the growth will stop, but I don’t think we’re to that point yet. As Americans increasingly, one, express dissatisfaction with the two major parties and, two, do some social covering — if you say you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you might be shut out of dating pools, you might be shut out of a job. So [choosing nonpartisanship] is a way to cover yourself, but it’s also a way to express dissatisfaction with the two major parties.

Are there races that may have seen an impact from unaffiliated voters?

Cooper: The most prominent example would be my home district, the 11th Congressional District in North Carolina. This is Madison Cawthorn’s district. Cawthorn, of course, infamous one-term member of Congress in North Carolina, lost his own party primary. Lost it for a host of reasons, but part of that is those unaffiliated voters got to choose which primary they wanted to vote in, and they came in much larger than the normal numbers to vote in the Republican primary. They voted Madison Cawthorn out of office.

Do you see politicians catering to unaffiliated voters or just making calculations of how they might win with or without them?

Cooper: They definitely cater to them. I mean, you know that you’re going to have your partisans in your corner, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. Not all unaffiliateds are swing voters, but all swing voters are unaffiliated. The parties, and the candidates have absolutely changed their messages. They target messages to these voters. They clearly select different messages based on these voters. We are seeing campaign strategies change in response to this massive increase in unaffiliated voters.

Is there anything else from your research on the unaffiliated that really stunned you?

Cooper: Well, as unaffiliated grows in numbers, that means something for how parties are going to organize themselves going forward. If we play that forward a little bit more, we know that unaffiliated candidates don’t run and they don’t win. So you need to run as a member of the two major parties. Well, we’re going to have a candidate recruitment problem before too long. Twenty years from now, when young people grew up with no party labels, who are we going to have to run for Congress, for state legislature, for county commission or any office in our state or in any state?

I think the real challenge, the real meaning of this is, yes, it’s here today and it matters. But boy, is it going to play out institutionally in the long run.

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