By: Diane Cook, NC Consultant
"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." - George Washington
In this often-quoted statement from George Washington during his Farewell Address in 1796, Washington warns the American people against the negative impact that political parties have on the country. During his presidency, he witnessed the rise of the Democratic-Republican party in opposition to the Federalists and worried that future political division would undermine the concept of popular rule in the United States. Perhaps this division led to a rise in independent/unaffiliated voters.
The whole notion of how to appeal to independent voters is becoming more important. The majority of voters are fatigued by the partisan national dialogue taking place between the two parties. During the last 25 years, there has been a rise from about 35 percent of voters self-identifying as independents up to as high as 45 percent, which is about half of the electorate. This is true across the country and it is also a fact for North Carolina as the number of individuals registered as unaffiliated or independent in our state has recently surpassed the number of registered Republicans and Democrats. For example, more than half of millennials identify as independent. Thousands of voters are choosing not to register with a major party, even though the system rewards membership through closed primary systems.
This spike in independents and unaffiliated voters should be taken by the parties as a warning sign that the public is growing weary of the parties’ outsized influence and power in American politics. There have been some significant changes in recent years as nonpartisan registration has surged. Previously, nonpartisans were seen as disgruntled voters who were choosing not to participate in the system. Marketing to them was difficult because no one knew what they wanted. Campaigns have often been focused on media, messaging, and polling. These elements are still important, especially in local campaigns, but now campaigns have entire teams dedicated to data work, trends, and identifying like-minded voters. Candidates are wise to find ways to appeal to the diverse range of unaffiliated voters while also keeping their base voters motivated.
If candidates are trying to lay the foundation and propel a new political force into the future, then the methods that are utilized to appeal to independents become a more significant topic. Academics and pollsters often pay too much attention to nonpartisan voters’ political leanings. Instead, they should be asking why, in a system that rewards party membership through closed primaries and other means, so many people are opting out. However, identifying supporters through data is important, as it helps local campaigns make better use of their spending. The political parties should take the growing nonpartisan momentum and disillusionment into account when campaigning. Simply identifying which independents may lean a certain way and catering to those people is a short-sighted approach. To ensure success, candidates are wise to identify a simple storyboard message that can be conveyed clearly and concisely. Beyond a simple core message, tailoring other messages to nonpartisans can often fail to bear fruit because the ideological spectrum of nonpartisans is too large. Catering a conservative’s message to nonpartisans is key. Republicans can use the nonpartisan bloc, which is almost the size of the Republican bloc in many areas, to overcome a Democratic registration advantage.
Consumer data can also form models based on nonpartisans who are easily identified as conservatives and add them, in terms of predicting an election, into the Republican base. Trying to persuade voters to match your candidate’s viewpoint is a dying strategy. In the 1980s and 1990s, an entire campaign would be centered on persuasion with only about three days set aside for getting out the vote. Now the campaign’s time should break down into about 40 percent registering and mobilizing base and like-minded nonpartisans, 40 percent getting those folks to the polls, and 20 percent trying to persuade those on the fence or on the other side.
For many years, Republicans and Democrats have signified two clear, opposing sides in the policy debate. At this time, the proliferation of nonpartisans means fewer voters, particularly younger ones, identify in such clear ways. Many jump across the spectrum on social or fiscal issues, and some prioritize aligning with these issues over choosing a candidate from a specific party. Party ranks will likely flatline in the future while nonpartisan registration will continue to rise unless the parties redefine themselves in the more forward-thinking ways that young voters demand. Creating a message that can appeal to nonpartisans and using data to identify those favorable to a candidate are equally important. This leads to greater success in reaching voters wherever they may be and convincing them to turn out.
Given that local races are nonpartisan by rule, it is a good idea for conservative candidates to take a different approach. Having a strong strategy of knocking on doors and talking to as many people as possible will identify key issues in a given local race, which can then be used as the basis for forming messages rather than typical party lines. Most nonpartisans are somewhat moderate. Identifying the issues that move voters in the geographical areas where they live, both figuratively and literally, is important and innovative. Voters care about local issues, so candidates should work to research and find out what those issues are so that they can identify what messages to share with their constituency. Candidates for political office are also encouraged to consider ways to care for the individual voters and to see them as people with convictions of their own.
As the power of the two-party system continues to wain, individual candidates will have to treat their campaigns more like a business. Without the larger party apparatus, candidates will need to rely on the support of marketing and campaign professionals that can build the unique brand of each candidate, rather than pushing the party platform. Unaffiliated voters will give more consideration to the individual candidate's message, rather than a slate of endorsed party candidates.
Give the Bridges Consulting team a call and we will help you reach the growing independent segment.