Independent Voters

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For the first time in state history, Independent voters out-register Democrats. If the trend continues, the number of registered Independents could exceed Republicans by the 2012 elections. Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University discusses the trend.

Ted Simons: For the first time in state history, independent voters outnumber registered Democrats. That's according to the Arizona secretary of state's office, which says that if the trend continues, the number of registered independents could exceed Republicans by the 2012 election. Here to tell us what the numbers say about Arizona politics is ASU pollster and political scientist Dr. Bruce Merrill. Bruce, always a pleasure. Good to see you.

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Always good to be here.

Ted Simons: What are the numbers? Are they increasing? Is a trend increasing?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: They've been trending for at least 15 years. The same as with the nation. We do expect the number of independents to exceed Republicans or Democrats by 2012, maybe 2014. So the trend has been going on for awhile, will continue.

Ted Simons: Who are these people?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Well, one of the sad things is that we know that a disproportionate number of people that are registering for the first time as independent are young people under the age of 30. They're turned off from both political parties. Actually, once you have a party identification, particularly a strong party identification, it's hard to change it. There is some change going on, but a lot of it is the new, younger people coming into the political system for the first time.

Ted Simons: For those who are changing, where are they coming from, Republicans, Democrats, a little bit of both?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: In Arizona it's been a little bit of both. It's a mistake to look at independents as a homogenous group. There are about a thirst lean republican, about a third lean democrat, and about a third or more libertarian or real independent that never really had any identification with any political party. They really come from both political parties.

Ted Simons: This is the kind of group, generalizing here, the kind of group that will go back to a political party?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Not very likely. Although in the history of American political parties, there's been a tendency for once the number of independents begins to grow, kind of like water behind a dam, once the dam breaks, those independents in the past have tended to go to one party or another. But parties are so dysfunctional and people are so turned off to political parties today, that some of us feel that that may not occur. That we just may be entering a period of tremendous volatility and change.

Ted Simons: So if someone in the Republican party or in the democratic party says, we need to get more of those folks, do they even try? Do they know where to go?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: No. It's going to be very hard for the parties to do that. For one thing, the research I've done here in Arizona, but it's no different nationwide, people have increasingly become concerned about the partisanship. So they don't like the bickering between the two parties, so they're not likely to be attracted to a party. The other thing that's had a tremendous impact on the number of independents is the level in the type of negative advertising. In this last election, people told us they were sick and tired of the negative advertising. So, I think what you're going to see and one of the main significances of this increase is the electorate is simply going to be much more volatile. In other words, one election the independents may go for a particularly attractive candidate. Two years later they could go if the other party has a better candidate or better issue, they're going to go for that candidate. So it's just going to be very volatile for awhile.

Ted Simons: Not a chance of a third party coming from these folks?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: No. In America, the way we've structured our electoral system is single member districts, it's almost impossible for a third party to exist.

Ted Simons: Same reason we don't see -- there are so many independent voters out there, how come there are no independent legislators in the statehouse?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Because independents can only vote for a Republican or Democrat. There really isn't an independent party.

Ted Simons: Some criticism of independent voters, particularly they're party is not identified. What they'll say is this is engagement not identified. That independents are simply not as engaged as party members are or anyone who identifies with a party. Is that a valid criticism?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: It is valid. It never used to be. Independents 10, 15 years ago actually had more information and participated higher than some of the party people. But today so many of the people that have come in as independents really are alienated. They don't want anything to do with the parties or the political system and that's one reason voting turnout has been so low.

Ted Simons: Again, is there anything that just in general the political environment can do to get these folks more engaged?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Well, you know, Obama certainly had a short-term effect. He brought some people in, but you saw what happened. When he wasn't on the ballot, two years later, they went back to how they had been before. So the thing that is going to attract people without strong party ties is personality or a very strong issue. 1070, for instance, we know in Arizona, the research that I was doing, showed that independents went for 1070 about 65 to 35. So that was an issue that really did pull independents towards the Republicans and helped the Republicans have this big election in Arizona.

Ted Simons: Last question. What do these numbers say now about the future of Arizona?

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Well, again, Ted, there's no question in my mind that the number of independents is going to continue to increase, and I think what it says more than anything is we're going to have a big disconnect between the electorate in places like the legislature. The legislature tends to be much more conservative, for instance, than the rank and file. Keep in mind, the turnout in the primaries is so low, that who is elected in the primaries sets the public agenda, independents have no input into that process.

Ted Simons: All right. Bruce, always a pleasure. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Bruce Merrill: Good to be here.

Bruce Merrill:ASU Political Scientist;

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