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Analysis

A paint-by-number portrait of Arizona’s nebulous independent voter

It’s a new year in politics. As of Jan. 1, there were 3,782,218 people registered to vote in Arizona, according the state Secretary of State’s Office. Perhaps you’re among them.

Other than a smattering of Green (0.17 percent) and Libertarian (0.86 percent) party members, Arizona’s voter registration rosters remain roughly divided into thirds among Democrats (30.99 percent), Republicans (34.72 percent) and independents (33.26 percent).

That means if you’re registered to vote, you’re more than likely either a “D” or an “R” or a small “i” (since there is no formal or established independent party in Arizona). Of course, as the Morrison Institute report, “Who Is Arizona’s Independent Voter?” pointed out, while D’s most frequently vote for candidates with a “D” behind their names, and R’s do the same with R’s on the ballot, the small “i’s” can go either way.

That’s not necessarily because an Arizona independent voter falls somewhere in the middle between Republicans and Democrats on the polarized political partisan spectrum. It’s more because independents often vote sporadically, showing up at the polls in smaller percentages than voters in the two major parties to perhaps largely vote Democratic one election, and a different gaggle of independent voters perhaps largely voting Republican in the next election. And, so it goes.

The only candidates for whom independent voters aren’t voting? Fellow independents, but that’s not necessarily by choice. Election laws written by the two major parties take various formats around the nation, with Arizona largely keeping independents off the ballot due to prohibitively high numbers of petition signatures required for ballot access (independents must secure versus Rs and Ds).

That could change in the future, but not likely anytime soon. In fact, the prevailing statement captured in focus groups for the Morrison Institute study on independent voters still resonates today: “We’re not a party. We’re a mindset.”

There are still some researchers who believe there really is no such thing as “independent voters.” But independents are beginning to claim space in the mind of many numbers-savvy campaigns of Democrats and Republicans alike in Arizona. Campaign managers know that as it stands today, looking at the voter rolls, we are a two-party system with a three-party electorate (with “party,” again, being used in the loosest of terms when talking about independents).

Sure, there some independents who lean Democrat, some others who lean Republican, but there are enough independents who can go either way, according to the Morrison Institute study. They’re not necessarily “moderates,” whatever that term means. For them, generally speaking, they lean fiscally conservative/socially progressive and they say they vote accordingly on individual candidates and issues.

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Under the current configuration and political power structure, it all comes down (as it always has) to voter turnout, with Republicans traditionally having a greater percentage of ballot participation than Democrats, and independents by far having the weakest of the three. But in many cases, independent voters still make the difference in outcomes.

Again that’s because D’s most often vote for fellow D’s, and R’s do the same for R’s, while the small “i’s” play a big role in determining elections in Arizona by swaying many contests one way or the other. It just depends on which independents show up and in what numbers to tilt the results one way or another.

If independents voted in primaries – which they overwhelmingly don’t, as noted in the 2018 Morrison Institute report, “Arizona Primary Elections: Primarily Forgotten,” they would have an even greater say in Arizona politics. That’s because in many cases the low-turnout party primaries serve as the de facto general election given non-competitive or “safe” districts greatly favoring one major party over the other in terms of voter registration. In essence, in 20 to 22 of Arizona’s 30 legislative districts, whomever survives the primary will be the likely and sometimes virtually guaranteed winner in the general election.

In Arizona, the rise of the independent party, if it indeed can be called that, is phenomenal when considering that in 1992, just 11.6 percent of the state’s electorate were unaffiliated with any political party. As a result, even though they are generally limited to choose between Republicans and Democrats on the ballot instead of independent candidates, independent voters cannot be ignored any longer. And they aren’t.

For example, the “independent connection” played a key role in the U.S. Senate race, with successful candidate Kyrsten Sinema running in name only as a Democrat while touting her “fiercely independent record” in the oft-repeated message of “Independent, just like Arizona” in campaign ads. With Democrats already in her corner, her targeted audience was apparent. Sinema eked out a victory, becoming the first Democratic U.S. senator to represent Arizona since 1995.

So, how does Arizona compare nationally for independents? Gallup has been surveying “party affiliation” since 2004 by asking the question: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent?” The latest results, taken from Feb. 12-28, showed 38 percent answering “independent,” with 30 percent alike for Republicans and Democrats.

Percentages have fluctuated in recent years, mostly between the mid-30s to the mid-40s for independents, but it’s apparent the better part of a third of Americans consistently identify themselves as independents – or so they say.

It should be noted, however, that the percentage of Americans who were self-identified independents in the Gallup survey were in the 40s from March 2017 through September 2018. By the first week of November 2018, at the time of the last general election, the percentage breakdown dropped to 39 percent independent. Meanwhile, 31 percent of those surveyed at that time said they were Democrat and 28 percent Republican.
The high mark for independents in the Gallup survey was 47 percent in September 2014 and October 2013.

In the official count for New Year’s Day in Arizona, 33.26 percent of the state’s electorate were registered as independents – just 1.46 percentage points behind the Republicans and 2.27 percentage points ahead of the Democrats. It’s been a similar breakdown for the last several election cycles, with the number of independent voters rivaling and at times even surpassing Republicans in recent years.

There of course have been more voter registrations and changes since January. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has been releasing the latest numbers weekly via her Twitter account. Her latest entry from March 18 noted: “UPDATE: This past week, 2,813 Arizonans registered to vote or updated their registration information! #Vote #MondayFunday.”

The numbers broke down accordingly: 845 for Republicans, 669 for Democrats, 16 for Libertarians and 5 for Greens.

Oh, and there also were 1,278 “Unaffiliated” (aka independents) in that time span.

If there is a trend in Arizona and the nation, it’s independent – as in independent of logical prediction in terms of what this large bloc of spotty-at-best, unaffiliated-by-choice, unorganized-by-nature non-bloc might mean to future elections, except to say that independent voters will continue to have a major say come Election Day.

We just won’t know exactly what being said until all voters have spoken – including, of course, the nebulous independent who seems to have a different message in taking on a different shape in shaping every election.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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1 comment on this story

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25 comments
Mar 21, 2019, 9:13 pm
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I am one of the (i)independents discussed in the article.  However, apparently unlike my fellow independents, I do not miss primaries, let alone general elections.

I give to candidates, not parties, and choose the ballot in the primary where I think my vote can have the most effect.  In Presidential primaries, I change my registration, again, to give my vote the most effect. In the general election, I vote libertarian if one is on the ballot, which I have done the last several presidential elections.

I have little use for the social religious right, and little use for the economically illiterates of the left, so if you represent that, my vote is not for sale.  And, if you are beholden to Bloomberg and his ilk, I will actively give money to your opponent.

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