The ranks of voters disgusted with both parties has swelled to historic size and could be the deciding factor in contests this fall.
It's a beautiful, brilliant autumn Sunday in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, a city of about 10,000 where the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers converge about 200 miles west of Denver. Several dozen residents have gathered at the Blue Bird Café, an outdoor clothing and equipment outfitter, bookstore and café featuring gourmet coffee, organic ice cream, gluten-free cupcakes, ceiling fans, and 19th-century saloon-style furnishings.
They have come to meet Kathleen Curry, their state representative who in 2010 was running for re-election to the legislature as an independent write-in candidate, a serious uphill battle.
Bruce Christensen, the mayor of Glenwood Springs, is an independent and a Curry supporter. He's lived in this town for more than 30 years, been an independent for all of that time, and been mayor for the last five. "The way you govern is you build consensus. You meet in the middle and everybody gives a little and you get something done."
It's just basic common sense, which Christensen says is in short supply in Washington. "Especially when you live out here in the boondocks, what strikes you is the nastiness, which is not something the people want to see ... In both political parties there are people in the backrooms pulling the strings and telling the politicians what to do, and it's not what's best for the country ... the people are being ignored."
Seventy-nine-year-old Joanne Clements, a retired teacher and a Democrat, has come to pick up a Curry campaign sign to put on her lawn. "Both parties suck," she tells me. "The parties aren't doing their jobs, they aren't listening to people. This is a ridiculous situation in Congress. I keep saying Ross [Perot], where are you now?"
Curry, who had served in the legislature for several terms as a Democrat before she decided to become an independent, wound up losing by only about 300 votes of some 30,000 cast in the election. She spent about 50,000 dollars on the campaign and says the Democratic Party and its supporters spent about a quarter of a million dollars -- more than any other Colorado House race in 2012 -- to beat her.
"I'm profoundly disappointed in the integrity of the system," she said. "Once they are elected, these officials owe everything to the parties and their supporters. I think there is a huge disconnect between the voters and the people who are getting elected."
Even as independent candidates continue to struggle, across the country the ranks of independent voters who think the parties care more about winning elections than about solving the nation's problems are swelling. Their number, along with their disaffection with the two-party political system, is growing exponentially. About 40 percent of all American voters now call themselves independents, a bigger group than those who say they are either Democrats or Republicans -- and the largest number of independent voters in 70 years. In some states, independents now are a majority of the voters.
Every election since World War II has been determined by voters in the middle. They elected Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The margin by which Obama carried the independent vote in crucial swing states around the country was one of the significant factors in his victory and will undoubtedly be critical to whether or not he is reelected.
The Republican victories in the 2010 midterm election were also decided by these voters. Independents supported Democrats by 18 points in 2006. But driven by their concern about the nation's economy and strong opposition to Democratic spending and health-care initiatives, they supported Republican congressional candidates in 2010 by the overwhelming margin of 56 to 38 percent, a 36-point swing from 2006.
But despite their critical role in general election outcomes, the independent voters have little to say about whom the parties select to run for office. In half the states in the country the primary process is closed to them. An electoral system that all Americans pay for with their tax dollars is run solely by and for the two major political parties. Which means the American electoral system is not fully democratic.
After the primaries are over, politicians need the independent voters to win and woo them with attention in November. But once they have their victory or -- to use the vernacular -- get what they want, independent voters are forgotten as quickly as a one-night stand. Democratic and Republican office holders are beholden to their base supporters, the special interests who donate time and money to them and the parties that control both candidate selection and the agenda.
Even as the number of voters who consider themselves at the ideological center of American political opinion continues to grow, the number of moderates in both parties in Congress, the ones needed to achieve compromise, shrinks with every passing election, and the political parties become ever more extreme.
This is a significant factor in Americans believing that the country is on the wrong track. Polls show confidence in government is at an all-time low. That feeling is even stronger among the independent voters I spoke with around the country for my new book, The Swing Vote.
One of the things I heard most often from them was their disgust about the influx of money into politics and the undue influence of special interests and lobbyists. Because of the link between money and access, many independent voters believe the system is rigged against the average person, that big money talks, and while campaign donors have ready access to members of Congress, the average person is often ignored and has no voice.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total amount spent on congressional campaigns in 2010, including money spent by outside groups, was $3.7 billion. That's right -- billion with a B. The average cost of winning a House seat in 2010 was $1.4 million, and the average cost of winning a Senate seat was $9 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Special interest groups and political action committees spent more than $900 million trying to influence the 2010 election and that figure will almost certainly top a billion dollars in 2012.
Former Kansas Congressman Dan Glickman now heads the Aspen Institute's Congressional Program and is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is firmly convinced that the explosion in the growth of federal spending and the national debt that started around 1980 is tied directly to the growth in campaign contributions.
"Money is the driving force in the American political system... It's not just the mother's milk of politics -- it's the cottage cheese and yogurt too."
Glickman says campaign donors "put money into the system to get government to do things -- either spending money or providing tax breaks. You can spend a couple of million in campaign money and get a billion in benefits. Both political parties are on the take. Both parties are raising money from the same people--they're the people who want things from the government... It defies the laws of nature to think that you can take their money one day and then kick them in the butt the next day... The money is corrupting. It does erode people's trust in government -- it's corrosive."
Independent voters cannot all be classified as one thing or said to have all the same interests and views. They are diverse in age, race, gender, and income level. I have divided them into four distinct and important demographic groups which comprise the key constituencies of the independent/swing voters and examine four critical swing states from different regions of the country -- New Hampshire, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia.