CIRULI: The year of the independent

Author: Floyd Ciruli - November 8, 2017 - Updated: November 7, 2017

Floyd Ciruli

America’s two major political parties are under assault. The 2016 election was a shock for both parties’ establishments, and they haven’t recovered. The divisions highlighted in the 2016 primaries are now becoming exacerbated by insurgent groups wanting to take complete control.

As the parties spend time and resources on their internal wars, this may be the year for independent voters and candidates to make a difference. Colorado’s gubernatorial race will be a good test case. The largest partisan bloc in the state is independents, and it’s growing. But historically, participation by independents has been low. As unaffiliated voters, they’ve been mostly thought of as an add-on after the parties’ respective partisan bases have been motivated. But several factors suggest 2018 could be different.

Colorado voters in 2016 approved a provision that encourages unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries by mailing them ballots. Historically, their participation, which was allowed but not facilitated, was poor. Colorado’s gubernatorial primary will be the first test of their potential power.

Both Colorado Democrats and Republicans will have aggressive, expensive primaries for governor. And both parties have anti-establishment frontrunners — Jared Polis and Tom Tancredo — with ideologies on the far left and far right. History shows that independent voters are often motivated by high-profile candidates offering out-of-the-mainstream views. During the 2016 presidential primaries, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as the unique and anti-establishment candidates, drew the most independent voters.

Both Tancredo and Polis will need independent votes to augment their early, but slim base of support, and both should be able to target and draw unaffiliated voters to participate. Many of Polis’ Second Congressional District voters are liberal independents, and he will desperately need to win the maximum number of voters from the constituency he’s served for a decade. Tancredo ran for governor in 2010 as a non-Republican conservative and received 37 percent of the vote. He will need all the unaffiliated conservatives he can attract. Both candidates will no doubt have active efforts to encourage their unaffiliated supporters to return their ballots. Polis can dedicate significant money and effort to duplicating the template established in presidential campaigns for targeting and GOTV.

So Colorado’s 1.3 million independent voters, who tend to be about one-quarter liberal, one-quarter conservative and the rest mostly in the middle, are now major players in the primary. Of course, they could also make the difference in the general election. Independents, especially those in the middle of the spectrum, tend to prefer candidates who appear able to get things done and work with the opposite party. Given their choice, they could swing the election to the less extreme candidate.

As of today, it’s hard to foresee an independent candidate successfully mounting a governor’s race, but if the parties continue to fracture and nominate out-of-the-mainstream candidates, it’s conceivable an independent could find room in the middle of the field.

The national party crackup is already attracting rumors of independent candidates for the 2020 presidential race. Colorado as a bellwether state may be first instance of independent voters helping pick nominees and then deciding the November winner.

Floyd Ciruli

Floyd Ciruli

Floyd Ciruli is a veteran pollster and noted political analyst based in Denver. He is the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is an adjunct professor teaching public opinion and foreign policy. Read Ciruli's blog at www.fciruli.blogspot.com