Independent voting on the rise

Increasingly, voters in Sacramento and across California are declining to state a party affiliation

As California’s secretary of state, Debra Bowen has tracked the increasing decline-to-state trend. Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain are probably paying attention, too.

As California’s secretary of state, Debra Bowen has tracked the increasing decline-to-state trend. Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain are probably paying attention, too.

Ten days after the death of Meet the Press’ Tim Russert, his 22-year-old son Luke appeared on Larry King Live. King asked the recent Boston College graduate why he registered independent rather than join a political party.

“I believe it’s important to vote for politicians and not a party,” Russert replied. “It’s kind of ridiculous how people in the United States, if they’re a member of the party, they don’t even listen to the other side of the issue.”

Russert ain’t alone.

As of May, nearly 19 percent of Sacramento County’s 626,000 registered voters don’t state a party affiliation—up from 12 percent eight years ago. And, oddly enough, the percentage is about the same in Orange County, that perennial Republican bastion.

In San Francisco, almost 30 percent of voters don’t choose a party—three times the number of registered Republicans. Statewide, more than 3.1 million Californians choose to be independent—nearly 20 percent of the Golden State’s 16.1 million voters.

And there are more of them all the time. In January 2000, there were 2 million independent voters. By October 2002, 2.3 million. By October 2004, 2.9 million.

More than one-third of new voters pick “decline to state.” It’s very possible that within 15 years there will be more decline-to-state voters than Democrats or Republicans.

Like Arlo Guthrie said back in the ’60s, it’s a movement. Kind of a weird movement, though, since it’s not like guys with clipboards are out on street corners flogging folks to sign up decline-to-state.

But come November, this bunch of voters is going to be a major force in Sacramento’s mayoral race, in selecting a president and in deciding the fate of a raft of statewide ballot measures, such as a proposed ban on same-sex marriage.

Sacramento political consultant Richie Ross says the independent voters are also a bellwether, a predictor of how the statewide vote will break.

Ross examined polls of how decline-to-state voters viewed the four initiatives backed by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the November 2005 special election and, the following year, tracked their attitudes about the package of public-works bonds Schwarzenegger championed during his re-election campaign.

Schwarzenegger and his 2005 initiatives got a good ol’-fashioned political ass whooping. The following year, voters gave the governor and the public-works bonds a sloppy wet kiss.

In each case, the breakdown of decline-to-state voters was within four points of the final result.

So, like they say in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who are these guys?

Smarty-pants pundits, professors and political consultants have scads of ideas on who indie voters are and why they dig being independent.

What’s for sure is the rise of independent voters is the political manifestation of a way bigger societal sea change—a sea change fanned by the Internet.

Weaned on a world of infinite possibilities, where anything imaginable can be had with a mouse click, why would someone possibly want to lock themselves into a couple of tattered political ideologies that haven’t exactly transformed California and the nation into a shining beacon?

“This generation that grew up on the Internet can just Google and see if something is accurate. They have ready access to e-mail, Facebook, MySpace. They can share their experiences in a completely different way. They’re not stuck with what they read in a newspaper article or a textbook. The whole world is open to you if you have a question. You bet the Internet has a huge amount to do with it,” said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who as a state lawmaker brought the Legislature online.

Ross says it’s about prepackaging. “They don’t buy a newspaper because they don’t want prepackaged information. They want to go online to create their own package. They don’t want CDs because that’s prepackaged music. They’d rather go online and download. Political parties are pretty much prepackaged ideologies.”

No one will ever accuse indies of walking in lock step. Some 39 percent of independent voters describe themselves as moderate in a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. The rest are evenly split between liberal and conservative.

Several Democratic and Republican operatives say dialing a decline-to-stater is the scariest moment in phone banking because the caller never knows what kind of person will come on the line.

Part of the indie profile is a strong “Don’t Tread on Me” streak. No more of the same-old, same-old, thank you very much.

Asked whether they would stop being independent if the political parties actually reflected their views, 69 percent said, like Groucho Marx, they wouldn’t want to join any club that would have them as a member.

The Policy Institute poll found that 47 percent of indies have always been registered decline-to-state. Half say they are recovering Democrats and Republicans.

That “back off, buster” mentality is probably partly explained by 59 percent of decline-to-staters being male.

There probably are also geographic differences. Although not heavily researched, it seems logical that independent voters would reflect California’s coastal-liberal, inland-conservative tilt. An indie in Tiburon is probably a different critter than one in Temecula.

But, generally, decline-to-state voters are more forgiving on social issues. After all, a plurality admits they’re rampantly moderate.

They’ve grown up with everything out front and open. They’ve interacted with every flavor of person. They’ve grown up with gay and lesbian friends and, often, relatives.

While independents tend to vote Democratic on social stuff, their attitudes are eerily similar to Barry Goldwater’s libertarian creed, which included the tenet that if conservatives favor less government, why in hell did they want to expand it into the bedroom?

Like Goldwater, independent voters tend not to be quite so forgiving on fiscal issues.

A recent Field Poll examined voter attitude toward Proposition 13, the limitation on property-tax increases approved by voters 30 years ago. Like their Democratic and Republican counterparts, independent voters thought Proposition 13 was just as awesome now as it was in 1978. Anyone who tried to tube it or just monkey with it a tad should be boiled in oil.

And yet 61 percent of those same independent voters said same-sex marriage was fine by them. In 30 years of polling on the issue, it was the first time a Field Poll showed a plurality of all voters—51 percent—approving of same-sex marriage.

Decline-to-staters were responsible for that.

“On close or contentious issues like, in this case, same-sex marriage, the independent voters provided the margin that created this first-ever majority,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

Decline-to-state voters tend to be college-educated and younger. The same Field Poll found 2-to-1 support for gays and lesbians marrying among voters aged 18 to 29. Fifty-eight percent of voters between the ages of 30 and 39 were also in support.

“Many of them are the new residents of Midtown who are anywhere between 18 to 35 years old. It’s the Millennials and the tail end of the Y Generation. They’re more questioning, less selfish than 10 years ago. They want to fix things,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Media and Politics at Sac State.

Nearly one out of five Latinos is registered decline-to-state. But almost 30 percent of Latino voters under the age of 26 are going independent, according to a report by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The city of Sacramento reflects the same trend. Nearly 54 percent of the city’s 197,630 voters are Democrats. About 22 percent are Republicans. Twenty percent are decline-to-state.

There are less than 3,800 more Republicans than indies. That gives the independents what former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown calls the “whip hand” in the mayoral race.

Ross, Mayor Fargo’s chief consultant, admits he hasn’t figured out how the decline-to-state vote will impact the mayor’s race.

He does think Fargo’s support for same-sex marriage may resonate with them.

Another theory is that Sacramento’s indies will go with a big chunk of the independent and younger voters nationally and cast a ballot for change—a plus for Kevin Johnson.

“People who are not incumbents and who embrace change have a better chance of capturing those independent voters and new participants in the electoral process,” said O’Connor.

However they break, the number of Democrats and Republicans continue to decline and the number of decline-to-states increase. They’re a power to reckon with now. Imagine what they’ll have to say about things a decade from now. They’re the new world. They’re the future.

Like Ross says, “The Democrats are GM. The Republicans are Ford. And the declines are Toyota.”