What the Incredible Rise of the Independent Voter Means for Philly

Since 2000, the number of independents and third-party voters has nearly doubled in Philly. Are more people free thinkers — or just signing off of politics?

Voting booth photo: William Thomas Cain/iStock.

For more than half of the 20th century, the number of registered independents and third-party voters in Philadelphia didn’t change much. From the 1940s to the early 1990s, there were never fewer than about 20,000 or more than 50,000. (Stick with me through some math here — it’s important.) Things began to take a turn in 1997, though, when the amount of indies and third-partiers in the city rose to 52,600; five years later, it climbed to 70,400; five years after that, it soared to 92,600. Today, there are nearly 124,000 in Philly — that’s an eye-popping increase of more than 154 percent over the past 20 years.

During the same time period, the number of local Democrats has grown by 24 percent, and Republican registrations have shrunk by 37 percent. In fact, for the first time in modern history, independents and third-party voters are now only 1,600 people away from outnumbering Republicans in the city. That’s stunning.

The boom in independents in Philadelphia could have an impact on local, state, and even federal elections. It could threaten the few GOP-held seats in city government. It could also chip away at the power of Philly Democrats to swing statewide and presidential races. And maybe, just maybe, it could make room for Socialists, Libertarians or Working Families Party members in local elected office.

What’s happening in Philly is happening across the country. Last year, Gallup found that 43 percent of Americans call themselves independents, a record high. But a number of studies have shown that most independents are not free-thinking swing voters, but closet partisans. “According to an analysis of voting patterns conducted by Michigan State University political scientist Corwin Smidt, those who identify as independents today are more stable in their support for one or the other party than were ‘strong partisans’ back in the 1970s,” the Nation writes. “Ninety-two percent of Democrats voted for President Obama in 2012 — just a tad higher than the 88 percent of Democratic-leaning independents who did so,” reports FiveThirtyEight.com. “Ninety-two percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Republican-leaning independents voted for Mitt Romney.”

So what’s driving more voters to identify as independents despite a strong tendency to cast a ballot for one party? Smidt says new independents “view partisanship as bad” and believe taking a side is “socially unacceptable.” In the modern era of hyper-partisan politics, it’s easy to see why a growing number of voters would want to act as if they’re above the fray.

Troublingly, Smidt discovered that self-identified independents are slightly less likely to vote than Democrats and Republicans: “Typically, independents are less active and less engaged in politics than are strong partisans,” he told the Nation. In the 2014 general election, 22 percent of independents voted in Philadelphia, compared to 35 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats. In November 2015, only 11 percent of independents came to the polls in the city’s mayoral race; 25 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of Democrats showed up.

The breakdown of Philly’s independents and third-party voters goes like this: 85,500 are unaffiliated with any party, 10,050 are part of the “Independent” Party (but many of these voters likely meant to register as “unaffiliated,” according to the City Commissioners Office), 3,370 are Libertarians, and 1,760 are Green Party members. While research reveals that most independents are either secret Democrats or secret Republicans, it’s impossible to know precisely how many of each are in Philadelphia. However, there’s an argument to be made that a big chunk of the unaffiliated voters in Philadelphia likely lean Democratic: Most voters in big U.S. cities, after all, tend to tilt liberal. And more than 53 percent of Philly’s independent and third-party voters are between the ages of 18 and 34 (compared to 34 percent of local Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans) — and millennials are the most liberal age group in the country.

If most independents in Philadelphia indeed lean Democratic, and if independents continue to grow, that means Democrats will be hampered by the fact that independents vote less often. This could potentially have an impact on statewide races — where Democrats like Gov. Tom Wolf, failed U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty and Attorney General-elect Josh Shapiro rely on Philadelphia to turn out a substantial number of Democratic voters — as well as presidential races. Remember, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania, one of the swing states that enabled him to prevail in the election, by only 44,000 votes. (The City Commissioners Office says it will not know how many third-party voters and independents cast a ballot in November 2016 until later this month.)

Bob Brady, chairman of the local Democratic Party, says he isn’t concerned by the growth of independents in Philly: “History shows they’re voting for Democrats.” At the same time, he says, “I’d rather see them committed all the way. I would like to see them get active and come out and vote more often than they do.” He believes most of the city’s independents are “young people who don’t want to be beholden to a party.” To get more of them involved in the Democratic Party, he says he has recruited a candidate to reinvigorate the Philadelphia Young Democrats, which will register millennials and recruit them to run for election board workers and committee people.

The surge in indies could potentially hurt the GOP as well. For one thing, the amount of independents who lean Republican in Philly might be higher than you’d expect, in which case Republicans would also be harmed in state and federal elections by independents’ relative aversion to the polls. After all, the number of registered Republicans in the city has dropped during the same period that independent and third-party voters have grown.

Even if there aren’t a large number of closet Republicans in Philly, though, the new independents could still hurt the local GOP. That’s because a few seats in Philadelphia are reserved for minority parties, including two City Council at-large spots and a city commissioner position. For decades, Republicans have almost exclusively run for and won these races, but members of the Green, Libertarian and Working Families parties could take a stab at them, too. Now that independent and third-party voters are just a couple of thousand registrations away from overtaking Republicans in the city, will we see more inter-party competition for these positions?

It wouldn’t be easy for independent candidates for City Council at-large: They would have to do major outreach to Democratic or Republican voters, since independents are ideologically diverse, vote less often, and are in the minority. Still, Socialists are already talking about running for City Council at-large in 2019. And last year, politicians Bill Green and Sam Katz flirted with the idea of vying for the at-large seats as independents. They didn’t end up doing it, but one independent, former Michael Nutter aide Andrew Stober, did. He lost by about 18,000 votes, but won endorsements from major unions and raised a substantial amount of money, perhaps paving the way for other indie candidates in the future.

Philly GOP leader Joe DeFelice says the rise in registered independents throughout the nation reflects a changing attitude toward the role of parties: “People are much more educated than they used to be. Back in the day, you waited for your [party’s] committee person to tell you who to vote for. Now, everything is at your fingertips.” One thing the Republican Party can do to fight to keep its minority seats, he says, is “run good candidates.” He also says the local GOP can sometimes decline to endorse candidates in primaries. The city’s Republican Party didn’t endorse anyone in the 2015 City Council at-large primary — not even the Republican incumbents — and DeFelice says that forced candidates to campaign early and built for excitement for the GOP field.

“I think open primaries are healthy for parties,” he says. “Last year, we had seven quality candidates [in the at-large race]. It made no sense to spend money and try to cut people off. Let people earn it. That makes people stronger. … It allows them to talk to independents.”

DeFelice may be onto something about the benefits of open primaries, and perhaps the Democratic Party should take note. Unfortunately for independents, though, they aren’t allowed to vote for either Democratic or Republican candidates in Pennsylvania’s primary elections. They can technically show up to the polls in primaries, but the only thing they can weigh in on is ballot questions. Maybe that’s why indies and third-party members have voted at even lower rates in recent primaries than they have in general elections: A measly 7 percent participated in the mayoral primary last year.

For some, perhaps registering as an independent is a way to leave a goodbye note before checking out of politics altogether. If that’s the case, we can add the surge in independents to the list of signs that our democracy may be in serious trouble.

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