The independence of independents
Party leaders, consultants look for ways to win on new landscape
THE RANKS OF political independents continue to swell in Massachusetts, while the number of Democrats and Republicans remains roughly steady. Younger voters are choosing to remain “unenrolled” when they register to vote, rather than choosing a political party. The result is an increasing tilt toward the “unenrolled,” as they are called here, who now make up 55 percent of the state’s voter rolls. We looked at the numbers in “It’s not my party, but I’ll vote if I want to,” appearing in the new summer issue of CommonWealth.
Key people within the two major parties reacted with mostly ambivalence about the direction of the trend, largely focusing on the practical realities of winning in a state with fewer registered partisans. Both parties were quick to point out that campaigns have plenty of data other than party registration, allowing them to identify likely supporters.
“The MassGOP has invested heavily in data tools that allow Republican candidates to target voters and build winning coalitions using information that extends well beyond partisan identification,” said Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.
Robert Cohen, vice president of the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, also minimized the importance of a decline in party registration. “I don’t see it as an extreme problem,” he said. “I’ve seen people come out and support a candidate or work for a campaign, but be unenrolled. Whatever might in the past have pushed them towards a party now pushed them towards a set candidate.”
Benjamin Rajadurai, chairman of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans, sees the rise of unenrolled voters as an opportunity for his party. “It helps us in Massachusetts,” he said. “Voters don’t need to identify with a party, but with a specific candidate. Even if they’re not enrolled, we can identify them. It’s not just about party ID. It’s about values and issues.”
A rise in truly non-partisan voters would likely be helpful to the Massachusetts GOP, given the Democrats’ advantage in party registration and self-identification. But the rise in unenrolled voters only means fewer are formally aligned with a party. Even unenrolled voters and who call themselves independents in a poll will reveal a partisan leaning when pressed, a point Cohen underscores. “We all know the trend has been ongoing, but people who are independent but lean generally vote the same way as people who are strictly partisan,” he said.
The exceptions to partisan voting habits are important, and have given the Republican Party a firm grip on the governorship since 1991, interrupted only by Deval Patrick. Other than in the corner office, the increase in unenrolled voters has brought little change to the party composition of the state’s elected officials.
Even so, Rajadurai remains hopeful that personality can overcome party leanings with younger voters moving forward. “Go into any classroom, you’ll see people on either side of the aisle, and they’re unenrolled,” he said. “I think if we’ve seen anything in the past few years, voters are fed up with the status quo, they think the system is broken. I think the party that can see this and capitalize on this will win, and continue to win.”Massachusetts will be treated to a field experiment in the independence of independents in 2018, as the popular leaders of both parties seek reelection. Both will run up huge majorities in their own party, and will look to unenrolled voters to help carry them to victory. Sen. Elizabeth Warren can rely more on Democrats’ 3-to-1 advantage in voter registration, and just needs to keep the margin among independents from getting too wide. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he is targeting 60 percent of independents, as well as a healthy share of Democrats.
The upshot? If both Baker and Warren win reelection, it will be because some sizeable share of independents split their tickets, voting for the Democrat for Senate and the Republican for governor. You can chalk some of that up to the power of incumbency, but it will also show that a consequential slice of independents are not partisans in disguise but really are, as Cohen and Rajadurai assert, voting for the candidate and not the party.