Seducing Independents

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By Hal Rhodes

Early this year Gallup pollsters released a survey showing fully 42 percent of American voters either “lean,” or are registered as Independents.
Only 31 percent of those responding to the poll said they are registered Democrats. Even fewer, 25 percent, were registered Republicans.
Much has been made of these numbers.
Some political onlookers find it ironic that members of Congress from a political party with only a quarter of nation’s registered voters are consistently able to block key legislation to the point of nearly shutting down the government. Others wondered how, in congressional elections two years ago, a mere 25 percent of registered voters managed to get enough of their fellow Republicans elected so as to have an outright majority in the U.S. House capable of blocking such legislation — especially since analyses of 2012 election returns reveal that fully 1.1 million more voters nationally cast their ballots for Democratic congressional candidates than Republican candidates?
Questions of that sort vex politicians and strategists in both parties and the answers vary. Some say Republicans are more apt to vote than Democrats, and that may be the case — especially in off-year elections.
Others argue that following the 2010 census, when Legislatures had to redraw their states’ congressional districts to reflect the new census numbers, Republicans were simply more skillful at gerrymandering the new districts to their advantage than Democrats. Which is true.
Yet there remains that 42 percent of the voters who claim to be Independent, neither Republican nor Democrat.
Hard core partisans aside, chances are most Americans probably think themselves somewhat “independent” in their politics, but identifying oneself as “Independent” in a collective sense, as a class of voters, is tricky.
Nonetheless, “Independent” with a capital I is a big deal in politics today.
Among other things, capital I “Independents” can register as such to vote. Pollsters even think they “lean.” The hoary Cook Political Report estimates that 47 percent of registered “Independents” “lean Democratic,” whereas some 41 percent “lean Republican.”
What’s more, according to the folks at Gallup, the “voters’ shift” lately has come mostly at the expense of Republicans. In other words, Republicans these days are more apt than Dems to sign on as “Independent.”
Make of these trends what you will, this much is clear: When darn near a majority of American voters tell pollsters they are “leaning” and/or registering as “Independent,” Democratic and Republican politicos alike fret.
Nowhere is that more evident than here in New Mexico land, where the efforts to seduce that growing number of “Independents” into throwing their lots with one of the established parties — Democratic or Republican — appears increasingly to center on the state’s primary election system.
In New Mexico, if you want to vote in a primary you have to register, of course. But if you want to vote in a Republican primary, you must register Republican. If you want to vote in a Democratic primary, you best register Democrat. If you’re a registered “Independent” you may vote in neither.
Some “Independents” think that violates their “right to vote,” and a case can be made for that proposition.
So recently a number of New Mexico politicos, including two Democratic legislators from Albuquerque, Sen. Bill O’Neill and Rep. Emily Kane, along with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and the Democrats’ nominee for governor, Gary King, have all said they’re cool with the idea of opening New Mexico’s closed primary system to voters who aren’t registered with either of the parties.
For hard-nosed partisans in both major parties such talk borders on heresy. After all, if only Republicans don’t choose their own candidates and Democratic candidates aren’t chosen by Democrats who’s to say they represent their parties?