Commentary

California Independents an Election Enigma


By Mark Baldassare, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California

This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 20, 2008

 


The biggest story in the early presidential primaries has been the surprising role of independent voters in what have historically been partisan contests. Unaffiliated voters gave Barack Obama a boost in Iowa when it appeared that Hillary Rodham Clinton had a lock on the Democratic race. Then unattached voters provided John McCain with a comeback victory in New Hampshire when his chances for winning any Republican primary appeared slim to none.

You can credit independents with creating headaches for political consultants, who gear their candidates' campaigns toward the party faithful. These voters also embarrassed pundits and pollsters, who had to try to explain why their election predictions turned out to be so wrong.

Now presidential candidates are turning their attention to California, where independent voters have recently succeeded in transforming a solidly Democratic "blue" state to a purple one. Since the 2000 presidential election, the number of major party voters has fallen by 800,000, while the "decline to state" (or independent) rolls have grown by 700,000 voters. Although Democrats still outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points (43 percent to 34 percent), independents, who account for 1 in 5 voters in California, have injected a new level of uncertainty into the state's partisan contests.

The reason? These 3 million voters defy conventional political wisdom. Consider this: Independents backed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 governor's recall and in his 2006 re-election bid, but they also supported Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer in 2004 and Dianne Feinstein in 2006.

What will happen when the seesaw presidential races in both major parties collide with the political forces at work in California's Feb. 5 primary? With both the Republican and Democratic nominations up for grabs, California independents will help set the tone for candidates' campaigns and, ultimately, will pick the winners.

California's primary differs in one important way from the early state contests. Independents will either choose to take a Democratic Party ballot or be forced to sit out the presidential sweepstakes. That's because the California Republican Party's rules have excluded independents from having a say in their presidential selection process. In doing so, the GOP removed some uncertainty from its primary, but it may have also sidelined a potential source of votes for the eventual party nominee. On the Democratic side, candidates can be expected to make a full-court press on independent voters because the lesson they've learned on the campaign trail is simple: Those who ignore independents, given their numbers and their proclivity to shake up the status quo, do so at their own peril.

Although independents in California can vote only in the Democratic presidential primary, they will no doubt influence the larger contest. Candidates on both sides are keenly aware that a treasure trove of 55 electoral votes goes to the winner in California on Nov. 4. For Republicans to have a chance of winning, they will have to follow the game plan that led to Schwarzenegger's victories and capture a large share of the independent vote. For Democrats to avoid a defeat in a must-win state this fall, they need to attract independents to their February primary and then keep them happy with their party's nominee.

And yet this need to appeal to nonpartisans will have to be reconciled with the need of presidential candidates to turn out the highly partisan party faithful. Republican candidates must connect with their party's core voters, self-described conservatives who prefer to pay less in taxes and have a smaller government with fewer services. Democratic candidates must win the support of their party's base, liberals with a preference for paying more in taxes to achieve a larger government that provides more services.

The Democratic and Republican primary contests also tend to amplify the partisan divide on a wide range of issues - Iraq, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, global warming, health care, nuclear power. Candidates thus run the risk of winning the primary battle only to lose the general election - Republicans veer to the right or Democrats veer to the left - and in the process they alienate the independents whose votes are crucial to success in the fall. It's a political tightrope that few candidates can walk successfully.

Still, the need to win the independent vote may lead to a ratcheting down of the partisan rhetoric and a focus on the post-partisan themes that have buoyed Schwarzenegger in recent years. As candidates crisscross the Golden State for votes in the February primary and beyond, they need to be aware that the California independent is a special breed, with views that span the political spectrum and reflect an overarching desire to reach for pragmatic, nonideological and nonpartisan solutions to problems. This voter group defines itself as politically moderate: Many have left the major parties and have no interest in ever joining a party. They often express a liberal perspective on social issues, seek action on environmental issues, and support a conservative approach on fiscal and law-and-order issues. They are also flexible in their policy and political allegiances, something that is rare in Democratic and Republican circles.

The greatest challenge for candidates is that despite their efforts to reach independents, many of these voters could simply tune out. With its youthful profile, political inexperience and a lack of party loyalty, this unaffiliated group is notoriously hard to pin down in terms of voter turnout.

In the latest survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, just 1 in 5 independents said they would pick up Democratic ballots in the February primary, but this could all change if they believe their vote will count. In the hands of independents lies the possibility for another upset in the Democratic primary and an opportunity for the GOP nominee to shock the world in November. Independents' fickle nature and unpredictable participation will keep the pollsters and pundits guessing until the California votes are counted - and will have profound consequences for the direction of the nation over the next four years.

Related Publications

California's Post-Partisan Future

California’s Independent Voters

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government, December 2007