Last Updated: October 23, 2009 by ldanielson

The Rise of Independents?
Chris Cillizza
The Fix | October 22, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Link to article

WaPo LogoTwo new polls — one by the Washington Post, the other by Pew — shows an increase in the number of people identifying as independents, a data point that is sure to lead to speculation about the possibility of the emergence of a third party (and third party candidate) in the runup to the 2012 presidential race.

The latest Post poll shows 42 percent of the sample describing themselves as independents, more than double the number who called themselves Republicans (20 percent) and even far ahead of the 33 percent who referred to themselves as Democrats. While three of the last four Post surveys have shown the independent number over 40 percent, as recently as last year independents comprised just 31 percent.

Pew’s compilation of their 2009 surveys to date showed a similar trend with self-identified independents comprising 35 percent — the highest that group has been in Pew data since 1992 and the rise of Ross Perot. (Pew has put together a terrific chart detailing their party ID back to 1939.)

The power of unaligned voters is also being played out in races for governor of New Jersey and the special election in New York’s 23rd district.

In the former, Independent Chris Daggett has rapidly moved up in polling as Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) bash each other day in and day out.

In the latter, Conservative party nominee Doug Hoffman seems to have eclipsed state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) as the primary challenger to Democrat Bill Owens (D).

Given all of that, the chatter about a viable third party has begun to increase as independent-minded voters seem to have grown increasingly unhappy with Democrats over the first ten months of the year after siding with them over the past two election cycles.

Before we get too far down that road, it’s important to remember that talk of a third party and the reality of it are too far different things.

First, while people like to describe themselves as independents, there are actually very few people who are entirely unaligned politically.

The Post polling team — Jon “JC” Cohen and Jennifer “J-Bug” Agiesta — did a detailed study of independents a few years back that showed deep divisions within those who describe themselves as independents.

That study showed that less than one in five (18 percent) of all independents are truly engaged, swing voters while the remainder are “disguised partisans” (24 percent), “disengaged” (24 percent), “disillusioned” (18 percent) or “dislocated” (16 percent).

That means that the vast majority of independents — roughly eight in ten — are not in fact the sort of people who would be building blocks for the creation of a third party.

Second, the institutional hurdles to the creation of a new party — or even running a third party candidacy for president — are massive.

The most basic challenges are from a financial and organizational standpoint where each national party has spent decades honing their approaches and have deeply entrenched advantages that would take years for a new party to learn.

The only answer to that problem is, as is often the case in politics, money. As Perot proved a decade and a half ago, a candidate willing to spend millions (and millions) of dollars can spend his (or her) way into credibility. (Paging Mike Bloomberg!)

Yet, even if a third party candidate does emerge in 2012 or 2016 there is no guarantee that such a candidacy would lead to the creation of a legitimate third party (Perot’s candidacies, for example, did not serve as the jumping-off point for another political party.)

The rise of independents is a trend that leaders in both parties are paying close attention to as winning these unaligned voters are critical to Democratic and Republican successes in the 2010 midterms and beyond.

But, be careful not to read too much into it.

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