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.
The NPR Republicans. Those voters who are socially moderate and fiscally conservative and who used to be known as Rockefeller Republicans, became independents because of a growing disaffection with their natural party home. These were traditional, socially moderate, country club Republicans named because their political philosophy was in line with New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican who supported abortion rights and many other socially liberal positions. But Rockefeller has been dead for more than 30 years, and it is time for a new label for these voters.
They moved away from the GOP in large numbers during the George W. Bush's presidency because of the war in Iraq, Republican overspending, and what they perceived as a general mismanagement of the government. They were also turned off by the GOP's alignment with the religious right and its conservative stands on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Many of them voted for Barack Obama, but have been turned off by what they see as his big government approach and could return home to the GOP in 2012 if Mitt Romney is the nominee.
The NPR Republicans tend to be affluent, well-educated, older voters. They believe in balancing the budget and holding the line on tax increases, but they also believe the government should stay out of people's personal lives. There are many NPR Republicans in New England, especially New Hampshire, but they can be found all over the country.
Increasingly, these voters are being driven out of the Republican Party and out of political office by primary challenges from the right and by those who want the GOP to be a conservative, ideologically pure party. We see this battle taking place in the presidential primary fight.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski might take exception to the label, but I consider her an NPR Republican. She was targeted in the GOP primary and lost the nomination to Tea Party-backed Joe Miller in 2010 but managed to win the general election running as a write-in candidate. A majority of the voters in Alaska -- almost 54 percent -- are registered as nonpartisan or undeclared, and many of them voted for Murkowski.
Following the election she was quite outspoken with me about what she sees as the attempt by the far-right to take over the Republican Party. Murkowski had a record of voting with the Republican leadership in the Senate "just" 80 percent of the time and is only the second person in history to successfully mount a write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Murkowski told me Congressman Mike Castle's defeat in the Delaware Senate primary in September 2010 to Christine O'Donnell, a Tea Party backed but questionably qualified candidate, was one of the things that motivated her decision to run a write-in campaign. "If they start in Alaska and they go to Delaware and pick us off one by one and if we roll over and accept that -- what happens to the Republican Party?" Murkowski wondered. "The whole notion that it would be this small fringe group that would be defining what a Republican is got my dander up."
"I think those candidates that would marginalize us are not good for us. When you move in a direction that says it's my way or the highway -- that's not really governing. That borders on dictating," says Murkowski.
America First Democrats. They used to be known as Reagan Democrats, but just like the moniker Rockefeller Republicans, that title is outdated. The America First Democrats are largely male, working- and middle-class voters who are concentrated in the Midwest and Rust Belt of the country in states like Ohio. It would make more economic sense for America First Democrats to be solidly aligned with the Democratic Party. Republican taxation and trade policies have put the squeeze on them and the rest of the middle class in recent decades. But they perceive a reluctance on the part of many Democrats to stand up for traditional American values both at home and abroad and tend to be more conservative than the Democratic Party on social issues. They lean toward populism, and are more protectionist, more religious, and more socially conservative than the NPR Republicans. They voted in large numbers for Bill Clinton, and many supported Hillary for president. Many of them did not vote for Barack Obama and their support in 2012 will probably hinge on the nation's economic picture.
Ohio is home to many America First Democrats. For the past one hundred years, Ohio has voted for the winner in presidential contests in all but two elections, and since 1964, it hasn't missed once. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, and only two Democrats have done so since 1900, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Barack Obama will undoubtedly be visiting Ohio dozens of times between now and November 2012. It's extremely hard to see how he can win the presidency without Ohio's 19 electoral votes.
Ryan Ayers lives in Canton, Ohio, and works at a structural steel fabrication company. He is an independent and a member of the National Rifle Association who leans to the right but votes for both Democrats and Republicans. In 2008 he voted for John McCain for president but for the Democratic candidate running for Congress in his district, two years later he voted for the Republican challenger.
"The American people have just had enough. They're tired," said Ayers. "Politicians are out of touch with us and they're not listening to what we want. I don't feel that the politicians really do what's best for us.... In my household -- you only pull in so much money. You can't spend more than you bring in. The government can't sustain deficit spending for a long time.... We've got to concentrate on our own country, developing our own infrastructure to get people back to work."
"We need a true swing party," Ayers believes. "I was hoping the Tea Party would do it, but they've gone too far to the right." Having viable Independent candidates would make a difference, "but they don't have funding or a way to get their names out."
The Facebook Generation. These voters under 35-years-old are not joiners and are mistrustful of groups except for those organized online. They are often more comfortable communicating via a computer screen than face-to-face and are used to having hundreds of choices when it comes to entertainment and most other aspects of their life, so they don't understand why they should be forced to choose between just two political parties. They see themselves as unique and special and don't think they can be pigeonholed in just one political party.
They were captivated by the transformational nature of Barack Obama's 2008 candidacy and voted for him in large numbers, but they are disenchanted with the partisan gridlock in Washington and Obama's inability to bring about the fundamental changes to the political system that he promised in the campaign. Motivating the Facebook Generation voters again this time around will be critically important to Obama's re-election.
Jeanna Grasso, who lives in Denver, is a 30-year-old independent voter. She says her favorite politicians are Bill Clinton and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Grasso mostly votes for Democrats, although she's not always sure exactly what they stand for and usually doesn't think the options offered by either party are all that good.
I first met Grasso a few weeks before the 2010 election when she participated in a focus group I held in Denver and she expressed very negative feelings about Congress. Grasso thinks being in Congress is "a purchased job. Who spends a hundred million dollars to get a job that pays a hundred fifty thousand? There's a reason why. All they are concerned about is, 'How do I stay in office?'"
By 2012, it is estimated that Millennials will represent almost a quarter of the U.S. voting age population, which is a huge, largely untapped voting bloc. In Colorado, people under the age of 35 account for almost 30 percent of the state's 3.3 million registered voters. Among this group of young voters, 45 percent are registered as unaffiliated, or independent, significantly more than any other age group.
Barack Obama won 54 percent of the vote in Colorado in 2008, only the third Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since the 1940s. Bill Clinton carried Colorado in 1992, the year Ross Perot won almost a quarter of the state's vote. The only other Democrat to win Colorado during that time was Lyndon Johnson. According to CNN exit polling, Obama won independent voters in Colorado by 10 points and self-described moderates, who made up about half the state's voters, by almost 30 percentage points.
Starbucks Moms and Dads. Suburban voters rarely live very far from a strip mall with a Starbucks, and they usually have children. These are the real power voters -- up for grabs and deciding elections in every region of the country. They too tend to be skeptical of big government, socially moderate, concerned about education and national security. In 2006, suburban voters went 50 percent in favor of Democrats and 48 percent for Republicans, but in 2010 only 42 percent of suburban voters chose Democrats versus 55 percent who voted Republican.
More than half the nation's population lives in suburban and exurban areas on the outskirts of major cities, up from a third in 1980, and these voters are critically important. Half the 435 congressional districts are predominantly suburban and comprise most of the swing districts in the country. Since rural areas remain solidly Republican and urban dwellers vote Democratic, the suburbs are where the action is.
In the 2006 midterm election, the suburban vote was very nearly split with 50 percent of suburban voters favoring Democrats and 48 percent supporting Republicans. In 2008, they voted for Barack Obama, but in 2010, only 42 percent of suburban voters cast their ballots for Democrats versus 55 percent for Republicans, according to CNN exit polling.
Starbucks Moms and Dads are turned off by extremism in both parties and are concerned about the security of their own jobs and the state of the economy and the rising national debt.
Julia Pfaff is a 48-year-old Starbucks Mom who lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County. An independent voter, she is extremely concerned about what is happening in this country. "I'm part of this huge group of Americans who feel disenfranchised."
"I think the two parties are so institutionalized. It's not about governing. It's about each party getting power. We talk about governing as if it was a game with one side winning and one side losing. I find that to be very destructive. We're never going to solve the problems we're facing as long as we think governing is a football game."
Thanks in large part to minority voters and the votes of Northern Virginia, Barack Obama was the first Democratic candidate for president to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964. But Virginia is a center right state and it will be more difficult this time around.
These are the swing voters. Disaffected with the two parties but deciding elections all over the country. They will be determining who becomes the next president of the United States.
Like these voters, most Americans are in the center and actually agree on a great deal. We're not as deeply divided a nation as either the two parties or the political pundits would have us believe. They just need to listen to the independent/swing voters. These voters at the ideological center of national political thought represent the way forward for the political parties and a new way of thinking and trying to solve problems. These voters want compromise and common sense, and they want Republicans and Democrats to work together on centrist solutions to the most difficult issues we face as a nation. Only by listening to these voters and reforming the political process can we revitalize our politics and our country.
Adapted from the book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents , published by St. Martin's Press.
Image: Jim Young / Reuters