The Republican Party stands to suffer the most from the movement away from staunch party loyalty, but Democrats also are affected.
“This says both parties are dealing with wounded brands,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. As a result, he said, “there are more voters up for grabs.”
Voters are increasingly wary of anyone with ties to the political establishment. A McClatchy-Marist poll last month found 41 percent of registered voters called themselves independent, a much higher percentage than either political party can claim.
Gallup found the independent total last year at 42 percent, the highest since it began asking 25 years ago. One-fourth identified themselves as Republicans, the worst showing during that span. Thirty-one percent said they were Democrats, down 5 percentage points from 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected.
Judging the impact
The impact on this fall’s congressional and gubernatorial elections is hard to gauge precisely. Many voters retain emotional links to political parties and might still be susceptible to partisan pitches. But independents have shown a tendency to move away from candidates they’re uncomfortable with in recent elections, and polls suggest they’re ready to do so again.
The trend arguably has cost Republicans the ability to have more clout in the Senate since 2010, as they’ve lost seats they’d been expected to win. Democrats today control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
In 2010, for example, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., who’d repeatedly won his at-large congressional seat statewide, fell in the Republican Senate primary to tea party favorite Christine O’Donnell. Independents were 27 percent of the state’s electorate that year, and they gave little-known Democrat Chris Coons a 3 percentage point advantage. O’Donnell couldn’t overcome that edge, since she won 4 of 5 Republicans, not enough to offset Coons’ winning 9 of 10 Democrats.
In 2012, Republicans saw big opportunities to win a Senate seat in Missouri and hold on to one in Indiana. But tea party candidate Richard Mourdock beat veteran incumbent Richard Lugar in Indiana’s Republican primary, and controversial conservative Todd Akin won Missouri’s Republican nomination.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who’d been seen as highly vulnerable, beat Akin easily. Independents made up about 28 percent of the Missouri voters, according to exit polls, and they gave her a 50-38 percent edge. Yet those same independents voted 59-35 for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
In the South, the independent trend creates a different narrative. The movement tends to be away from the Democratic Party, which controlled politics for generations. Republicans began making inroads in the late 1960s, as many whites rebelled against Democrats’ championing of civil rights legislation. The trend now threatens the few remaining Democratic statewide officeholders in the South .
In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a tough road to re-election, white voters “tend to not like Washington. They’re pro-gun, anti-abortion and want lower taxes,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a partner in Baton Rouge’s Southern Media and Opinion Research.
It’s still hard for people whose family ties to Democrats go back generations to say they’re Republicans, but “they don’t like the Democratic Party,” Pinsonat said.
“But they don’t consider themselves officially in the Republican Party,” he explained, “so they call themselves independent.”