The Cambrian

In politics, the party’s far from over, but fewer voters are going

Steve Provost
Steve Provost

It’s election season, and the filing period is open for people who are thinking about making a run for seats in San Luis Obispo County.

On the North Coast, elections are open for Coast Unified School Board, community services districts in Cambria and San Simeon, and Cambria’s health care district board.

All these seats are nonpartisan, which fits well with the nation’s trend as a whole away from strict party affiliation.

A Gallup poll taken June 14 to June 23, for instance, shows a clear plurality of voters — nearly 4 in 10 — identify as independents. The 39 percent figure compares with 31 percent who identify as Democrats and 28 percent who call themselves Republicans.

(In California, independent voters register as “no party preference.”)

The move away from partisanship has been even stronger among millennials, a full 50 percent of whom identified as independents in a March 2014 Pew Research Center poll. That’s nearly twice as many as those who said they were Democrats (27 percent) and almost three times as many as self-identified Republicans (17 percent).

The irony is that this trend seems to run counter to a trend toward polarization noted by numerous observers over the past several years.

So, what gives?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for vice president, offers a clue when he describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

What that indicates is that Pence, at least, views ideology as more important than party affiliation — and many voters seem to agree. In the Gallup poll, 9 in 10 voters still said they leaned toward one major party or the other, with 48 percent either identifying with or “leaning” toward the Democratic Party, and 42 percent either Republicans or leaning that way.

Translated, that means more than 4 in 10 independents actually lean toward the Democrats, and 34 percent of them lean toward the Republicans. The best explanation: They don’t feel any particular loyalty to either party mechanism, but they still share the vast majority of one party’s ideological goals. Think Bernie Sanders. Before he switched his affiliation from independent to Democrat, he spent the majority of his career caucusing with Democrats in the Senate. He agreed with them most of the time, but he didn’t identify as one of them.

Take parties out of the equation, and the importance of ideology in voting — and the phenomenon of polarization — becomes even clearer.

In the November 2014 election for Cambria Community Services District directors, the two candidates (both incumbents) who supported the Sustainable Water Facility — then known as the Emergency Water Project — both received 29 percent of the vote and finished within 16 votes of each other. The two challengers who were perceived as opposing or questioning the project each received 20 percent of the vote and finished within 11 votes of each other.

In this case, parties weren’t necessary to create a case of apparent bloc voting; common concerns among two clear segments of the electorate were more than enough to do the job.

That’s one conclusion that the poll numbers seem to be saying: More and more voters are saying parties simply aren’t significant — or at least not decisive — when it comes to marking their ballots.

Of the three most popular presidential candidates who ran in the current election, two were party wobblers: Sanders only changed his affiliation to Democrat for this election, after being an independent for decades. In the past 30 years, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been a Republican three times, a Democrat for eight years and an independent. Of the three, only Hillary Clinton could be called a party regular.

The same phenomenon doesn’t hold true for legislative offices, which remain dominated by Republicans and Democrats in partisan races. Despite the electorate’s shift away from partisanship, this seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Parties are prodigious fundraisers. While candidates like Trump and Sanders can assert some independence by using their own money or generating contributions through social networking, that seldom works for regional candidates. Even Sanders and Trump sought their respective parties’ imprimatur (although Trump effectively leveraged himself by repeatedly asserting he could go it alone).

What’s left is a disconnect, in which independent voters see parties as providing only a framework for the process to move forward. The substance is the ideology or, in the case of “personality” candidates like Trump or former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a perceived ability to “get things done.” These things are more important to the growing segment of voters who identify as independent than the party framework.

The tension between the two-party system and voters’ increasingly nonpartisan approach is already causing major upheaval in the form of Trump’s nomination and Sanders’ unexpectedly strong challenge to Clinton. Is this a one-time anomaly or the beginning of a long-term trend?

Time will tell.

Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896