October 24, 2006
In Southwest, a Shifting Away From Party Ties
By KIRK JOHNSON
SHOW LOW, Ariz. — Political parties are like cowboy boots in many parts of the West. If one pair doesn’t fit, you try on another.
Hal F. Butler is old enough to remember when the boots here in Navajo County were overwhelmingly filled by Republicans, and then, beginning in the late 1940’s, how the county turned Democratic. Mr. Butler became a Democrat in the 1950’s at the urging of his mother, a staunch Republican who said the Democratic Party was the party of the future for an ambitious young man.
Now Mr. Butler, who is 81 with half a century of elected and appointed office behind him, including a stint as Show Low’s mayor, sees an emerging third wave: the age of the independents is here, he said, and his own family is shifting along with it.
“The independent vote is swinging everything,” he said. “They’re going to be the powerhouse.”
Nowhere has the shift been more pronounced in recent years than in the Southwest, where Republicans have enjoyed an overwhelming advantage since the days of Barry Goldwater. Here in Arizona, people who reject the old major party labels are by far the fastest-growing category of voter, with the number of independents doubling over the last 10 years, to more than one in four.
Numbers like that are the stuff that ulcers are made of for party regulars and election prognosticators, who are trying to figure out where the new independents are coming from politically or geographically and where they might hang their hats on Election Day. No one is fully confident. Anxiety is high.
“Arizona has always had an independent streak, but these new voters are of all stripes,” said Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party. “They’re going to be a wild card.”
But if the trend toward independent voters continues — and there is no sign of faltering — experts say it will lead to more competitive races not only on local and statewide levels but also in the presidential election.
As the Nov. 7 elections approach, the whole idea of party is in flux in many parts of the nation as candidates and voters reassess the connotations — in baggage or benefit — of party association. Some office seekers are omitting their party label on their lawn signs, and some dwell at length on the stump on how much they disagree with their own parties on issues like the environment or stem cell research— all to look more unaffiliated in order to lure the independent vote.
Closer elections and more balanced war chests, meanwhile, in races across the nation are elevating the role of independents regardless of their numbers — and changing as well the strategies of how to reach them, even as they turn their noses up at what the two-party system has become.
“The first message they’re sending to us in the political world, and to general public, is ‘Don’t assume anything,’ ” said Michael J. Frias, director of campaigns for the Arizona Democratic Party.
Who the independents are is probably the first assumption to discard, politicians and researchers say. Polls by Arizona State University, for example, suggest that younger voters who no longer see the relevance of party membership are one of the largest engines of the growth.
But here in Arizona’s First Congressional District, the growing number of independents — about 23 percent — is compounded by a surge in newcomers, especially from California and the Midwest.
A spokesman for Representative Rick Renzi, a two-term Republican, said many of the new independents were libertarians who rejected party just as they rejected intrusion by government. A spokesman for Ellen Simon, Mr. Renzi’s Democrat challenger, said that the independents could not be pigeonholed and that the only reasonable campaign tactic was to talk to them — and talk and talk.
“With the independent voters, you have to talk to them more often, with more frequency and be as specific as possible,” said Brandon Hall, the campaign manager for Ms. Simon.
In other races around the country, courting independent voters has coincided with a feeling that party affiliation of any kind this year could be toxic. In New Hampshire, where independent and third-party voters account for more than 40 percent of the electorate, Representative Charlie Bass, a Republican, has run television advertisements proclaiming how different he is from his party.
In Colorado’s closely fought Seventh Congressional District outside Denver, lawn signs for the candidates — Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, and Rick O’Donnell, a Republican — mostly carry no party identification. About one in three voters in Colorado are independents — in the Seventh it is even higher, 37 percent.
Some election experts are skeptical about voter statistics and say party registration as counted by most states is a poor measure of the electorate. Massachusetts, for example, has rules that encourage strategic registration, since independents can vote in any party’s primary. Most national surveys have shown little change in the numbers of self-described independents since the late 1970’s, but the polls tend to ask about ideological preference rather than actual party registration.
But here in the Southwest, the shift away from major party affiliation has been pronounced. Of the seven states with the fastest-growing proportion of independent or third-party voters from 2000 to 2004, four are clustered in the Southwest — Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, according to Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting company that tracks election information. New Hampshire had the second-fastest growth after Arizona, followed by Florida and Maryland.
And the changes in voter registration have coincided, at least in the West, with a decidedly positive turn for local Democratic candidates in states where Republicans had been dominant, either by history or in number. Four states in the eight-state Rocky Mountain region — Arizona, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming — now have Democratic governors, up from zero in 2000. And in Colorado, Bill Ritter, a Democrat, has led Representative Bob Beauprez, a Republican, in most polls going into next month’s election for governor.
Arizona had the fastest growth in the nation in no-party and third-party registration from 2000 to 2004 among the 25 states that count party numbers, up to 25.5 percent in just four years from 14.7 percent of the electorate, according to Election Data Services. Nationally, the ranks of the independent rose by 21 percent in that period among the 25 party-counting states, compared with a 7.4 percent increase for Democrats and 5.5 percent for Republicans.
Meanwhile, Republicans of Western libertarian bent have chafed as their party has held ever more tightly to the morals-based agenda of its Christian evangelical wing, said Ryan Sager, author of the recently published book “The Elephant in the Room,” which chronicles the libertarian-evangelical tension.
California, with Democrats dominant but independents rising in number, also has a moderate Republican governor in Sacramento, which suggests that perhaps nonparty voters are not tilting Democratic at all, that the only certainty is that they have rejected the old labels.
“The Western image of the small-government, leave-me-alone conservative no longer fits into the modern Republican Party,” Mr. Sager said in an interview. “And the Democratic Party is not as scary as it used to be.”
Experts like Mr. Sager say that places like Navajo County, about three hours northeast of Phoenix, are a natural breeding ground for antiparty sentiment because party labels have always been a bit artificial, reflecting local culture more than ideology, and are therefore easier to shake off. Between the 2000 election and last month, the number of independents here rose from about 15 percent of the electorate to 22 percent heading into the November elections, according to Arizona secretary of state’s office. Shifts like that are getting politicians’ attention all around the country.
“Politics has become a winner-take-all game played at the expense of ordinary citizens,” said Ben Westlund, a state senator from Oregon who resigned from the Republican Party this year to run for governor as an independent. But Mr. Westlund withdrew from the race in August because he said he did not want to be a spoiler candidate who would skew the election.
The deepened sense of polarization in American politics is also making the independent voters’ journey harder. As recently as the 1970’s, for example, many voters told pollsters that they would vote across party lines for a presidential candidate they liked. They have become much less likely to think outside the box in the years since, said Robert Y. Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University.
Here in Show Low, which was named for a turn of the cards in an 1800’s property dispute between two ranchers — low card takes all — hardened partisan orthodoxy is exactly the problem. “Both parties are out for themselves,” said Greg Butler, Hal Butler’s son, who grew up a Democrat but changed to independent in 2004 and said he was supporting candidates in both parties this year. “I think you’ve got a right to do what you want and a right not to be labeled — I like that,” said Mr. Butler, 56.
His son, Dusty Butler, 26, skipped the Democratic phase entirely and went right to independent when he registered for the first time. He plans to vote mostly for Republicans next month, he said.
“I asked Dad a lot of questions, and it made sense to me,” he said.
Some Navajo County residents say that because lots of Democrats have voted for Republicans over the years, and vice versa, the divisions between the parties are not as pronounced here, which makes it easier to abandon the idea of a party at all.
Other people say the major parties have simply made people angry.
Hal Butler said that some of environmental protection rules under the Clinton administration, including restrictions on mining, ranching and forestry — the big three traditional industries here in Navajo County — were not popular, to say the least. But Mr. Butler said the Republicans had made no friends by promising to reverse the Clinton rules and mostly failing to follow through.
Mr. Butler said he had kept his Democratic Party membership, for now, in support of his son Gary H. Butler, a Democrat who has been the elected Navajo County sheriff for the last 18 years. When Gary Butler retires in two years, Hal Butler said, that obligation will end and he will quit the Democratic Party and turn independent.
Gary Butler, 60, said he, too, planned to resign his party membership upon retirement, though he was not sure where he would go.
“Right now, both parties are way too far apart and nobody is looking out for the good of the people,” he said.
From the Libertarian in the Race the article was about.
A birthday present from the mainstream media
Posted On 10-24-2006 , 11:24 AM
The New York Times has a profile of my Congressional race in today's paper - “In Southwest, a Shifting Away From Party Ties.” It's all about how voters in the southwest US are moving away from Rs and Ds, and the Republican's campaign even mentions how important the libertarian vote is becoming.
The only thing missing is the Libertarian candidate.
(Publisher FreedomsPhoenix: "You don't think this was an accident do you?"
Here is the note I wrote to the reporter, copying the NYT ombudsman (their email addresses are in the message header, if you would like to also add your voice).
From: David Schlosser
Sent: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 8:23 AM
To: kjohn (@) nytimes.com
Cc: public (@) nytimes.com
Subject: Hey, Kirk, I'm the guy you wrote that story about
How could a bureau chief of the nation’s paper of record write an entire story (“In Southwest, a Shifting Away From Party Ties,” NYT, 24 October 2006, ~1750 words) about independent and third-party voters in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District without talking to the candidate who represents an alternative to the R and D candidates you did talk to? If it weren’t such a flagrant and disgraceful example of poor, lazy reporting, I would think it must be a joke.
As the Libertarian candidate for US Congress in AZ1, I have been advertising on TV since mid-August. I will, by the end of the campaign, participate in at least 10 joint appearances with one or both of the major-party candidates. In the past week alone, I’ve put more than 2,000 miles on my car campaigning through this sprawling district. I have raised nearly $30,000 – small by R/D standards, but a record-breaking amount for non-R/non-D candidates in Arizona. I have earned more than 100 mentions in the state’s broadcast and print news media in recent weeks and, on the Libertarian Party’s national candidate tracker, rank in performance/success behind the party’s former Presidential candidate, who has raised more than $300,000 in TX10.
I’m adjunct faculty at the Northern Arizona University School of Communication. According to the departmental rules on grading journalistic writing assignments, this one would have earned you an “F.” I would be more than happy to help remediate this situation by corresponding or visiting with you at your convenience.
With sincere best wishes for your continued success,
Schlosser for Congress - Arizona's 1st
103 E Mohawk Dr | Flagstaff AZ 86001-6904 | 928-255-0195
Freedom - Responsibility - Accountability ... to balance the checkbook