Unaffiliated Voters on the Rise in California

More California voters are registering not as Republicans or Democrats, but as "decline to state," indicating no party preference. The ranks of the major parties are affected. Will this become a national trend?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm a uniter, not a divider.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): Partnership, not partisanship.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Disagree without being disagreeable to each other.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This morning's installment of our series Crossing the Divide focuses on voter registration. In California, the fastest growing category is declines-to-state. That means roughly one out of every five voters in the Golden State has no party preference. And this appears to be a national trend. It's one way voters are dealing with the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

Mr. CHRIS THEODORE(ph): I'm only hearing buzzing (unintelligible).

INA JAFFE: Thirty-year-old Chris Theodore is a Hollywood sound technician on his way to pulling another 16-hour shift, which may get even longer if he doesn't get rid of this mysterious buzz.

Mr. THEODORE: Two clicks for good, one click for bad.

JAFFE: He plugs and unplugs an enormous tangle of cables into hundreds of little round holes.

Mr. THEODORE: And the solution was to wiggle a cable.

JAFFE: Chris Theodore is a problem solver, and he thinks that politicians should be too. He's a registered independent; or as its called in California, he's a decline-to-state voter. He doesn't see himself fitting into either of the major parties.

Mr. THEODORE: The typical Republican constituents would be the religious right. The typical Democrat constituent will be an under-represented minority. So I don't fall in either of those categories, and I think my positions on issues are just a philosophical examination of everything.

JAFFE: In California, Chris Theodore has more company everyday, says Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California.

Mr. MARK BALDASSARE (Research Director, Public Policy Institute of California): It's very significant because the growth of independents appears to becoming from the newly registered people. But also it appears that people who were Democrats or Republicans deciding to give up those labels.

JAFFE: And if the trend continues?

Mr. BALDASSARE: We might see the number of independents actually outnumber the Democrats or Republicans 20 years from now.

JAFFE: Nationwide, the number of independent voters is also growing, says Curtis Gans, head of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C.

Mr. CURTIS GANS (Director, Center for the Study of the American Electorate): In 1962, it was about 3 percent of the electorate in the 28 states who had partisan registration. This year, I've just got final figures; it's going to be over 21 percent.

JAFFE: And that's just in the states that measure such things. Nationwide, the percentage may actually be higher. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 32 percent of voters consider themselves independents. Various surveys tell us a little bit about them. They tend to be younger. They don't vote consistently, and they're generally more cynical about politics. No surprise there, says Gans.

Mr. GANS: I have a small litany which starts with I am not a crook. I did not know anything about Iran-Contra. Read my lips, no new taxes. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. And we are in eminent danger of weapons of mass destruction. You know, our leaders of both parties have eroded the trust in their leadership.

Mr. GARRY SOUTH (Democratic Campaign Strategist): And that means on a campaign you have to take that into account.

JAFFE: Says Garry South, Democratic campaign strategist for former California Governor Gray Davis. The very last voters to make up their minds, he says, are the independents.

Mr. SOUTH: And one of the reasons that they are late deciders in campaigns is because, frankly, a lot of them think both candidates are liars and you couldn't believe a thing that single one of them said even if they told you that the sun was coming up the next morning. And a lot of them, in the final analysis, don't vote.

JAFFE: You have to appeal to them as centrist, says South, although their positions on individual issues maybe anything but.

Mr. SOUTH: Independent voters in this state tend to be moderate to conservative on the fiscal side. And on the social side, they tend to be liberal to libertarian.

JAFFE: Which means that as the numbers of independents grow, candidates will be forced to address a broad menu of issues, says Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist for both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Republican Campaign Strategist): I think the days of cultural wedge politics and hammering one single issue are gone.

JAFFE: Dowd acknowledges that this is not exactly the way President Bush's reelection campaign was conducted. But voters were so polarized already, he says, there were very few people who were undecided about this president. And when Dowd first went to work for presidential candidate Bush, he'd hoped…

Mr. DOWD: Maybe he can do what he did in Texas and bridge the divides and, you know, bring people together. And I think me, like many people, many voters, have been disappointed that that hasn't been done.

JAFFE: But voters are still hungry for that, says Dowd, looking for it, maybe even expecting it from the next president.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the political divide is also a family divide.

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