Memo|Politics/Elections   10 Minute Read

Six Year Itch: Independent Voter Registration Increases Amid Political Dissatisfaction

Published September 30, 2014

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Takeaways

In our latest study of voter registration data in ten competitive statewide races in 2014, we found that since 2008:

  • Democratic registration has decreased by 658,112 or 4.8% and now stands at 12,923,006;
  • Republican registration has increased by 359,903 or 3.3% and now stands at 11,158,491; and,
  • Independent registration has increased by 1,337,765 or 17.4% and now stands at 9,020,974.

With midterm elections approaching, Congressional approval is at a bleak 14%.1 Seven in ten say “throw the bums out” generally, while 36% don’t even want their own representative reelected (a record high).2 Republican approval of Republican representatives is under a majority at 44%—Democratic representatives do a bit better among their own partisans at 56%.3 And across the political spectrum, Americans believe that this Congress has been less productive than previous ones.4

During the government shutdown in 2013, one-third of Americans cited dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing America today, eclipsing the economy and jobs by double-digits.5 Confidence in the government has never recovered. Six in ten Americans say the Democratic and Republican parties do such a poor job that a third party is needed.6 And polls consistently report record high numbers of people identifying as political independents—at least 40% for the past few years7

Amid this growing political dissatisfaction, both the Senators and Governors in cycle will face very different voters than they did in 2008 and 2010, respectively. President Obama’s first election in 2008 was a high water mark for Democrats; 2010 was the wave year the Tea Party wrested control of the GOP from the more moderate wing. But since the last midterm election, Independent voter registration has expanded dramatically—both nationally and in the ten states with competitive Senate and Gubernatorial elections this November where partisan registration data is kept.*

Twenty-eight states, including the District of Columbia, have voter registration data by party identification. Sixteen states without competitive Senate or Gubernatorial races were excluded from this analysis. Rhode Island and Connecticut were excluded because they did not have updated data. A complete list of voter registration data for 2014 can be found in Appendix A, including the sixteen states not included in this analysis.

In this report, we show that since 2008, Independent voter registration has increased 17.4% in states with the most competitive Senate and Gubernatorial races this November. At the same time, Democrats have lost voters and Republicans have barely maintained their levels.

Independent voter registration has increased dramatically in places with the most competitive Senate and Gubernatorial elections this November.

Since 2008, Democratic registration has fallen in the ten states with competitive Senate or Gubernatorial elections where voter registration data by party is available. Simultaneously, Independent and, to a lesser extent, Republican registration has increased. Over the past six years:

  • Democratic registration has decreased by 658,112 or 4.8% and now stands at 12,923,006;
  • Republican registration has increased by 359,903 or 3.3% and now stands at 11,158,491; and,
  • Independent registration has increased by 1,337,765 or 17.4% and now stands at 9,020,974.

There is considerable variation among these states. The majority of registered voters in Alaska are Independents. And Independents also outnumber Democrats and Republicans in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and New Hampshire. There are more Independents than Democrats in Kansas, although Republicans outnumber both. And in the oft-referenced “red states” of Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina, there are still more Democrats registered than either Republicans or Independents—a fact that’s true in Florida as well.

2014 Voter Registration Totals

While Democrats shed 658,112 voters since 2008, when the current class of Senate seats was last in cycle, they started with an overall advantage and only lost 4.8% of registered partisans—still remaining the most populous party in these states. Republicans added 359,903 voters to the rolls, an increase of 3.3%. But Independent registration rose a whopping 17.4% during the same period, with double digit increases in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. In New Hampshire and Maine, voter registration is down across the board—likely a reflection of list maintenance. In Alaska, Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina, Democratic registration is down while Republican and Independent registration are both up.

Voter Registration Change, 2008-2014

We now look separately at the states with competitive Senate races and those with key races for Governor, since incumbents in the former category were elected in a wave Democratic year and in the latter won in the year the Tea Party dominated (some states have both and are reflected as such).

Focusing on the Senate races, the pool of registered voters has changed dramatically since the last time these seats were in cycle, with more Independents and fewer Democrats in crucial contests.

In the Senate landscape, Democrats are defending many incumbents in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012—mainly due to electoral success in 2008. But the challenge in holding these seats is evident in the voter registration data. Since 2008, in these eight states with competitive Senate elections this November:

  • Democratic registration has declined by 451,720 or 5.3% and now stands at 8,006,065;
  • Republican registration has increased by 313,235 or 4.9% and now stands at 6,741,148; and,
  • Independent registration has increased by 726,167 or 15.8% and now stands at 5,577,774.

While the overall pattern is a move away from Democrats in these states, there is considerable variation, and Democrats still hold a registration edge in several of them. Democratic and Republican registration changes are inversely proportional in Alaska, where Democrats shed just over 7,000 voters and Republicans added a nearly identical amount. Independent registration rose slightly in that state, but it already had constituted a majority of voters. In Louisiana, Democratic registration is down double digits, with Independent registration up 12%. In North Carolina, most of the movement is among Independents—who have increased by nearly 30%. In both states, Democratic registration still maintains an edge, but that edge it is notably smaller than it was in 2008. Among the eight states, Independents were the fastest growing proportion of the electorate in four of them (Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina) and Republicans dominated growth in three (Alaska, Iowa, and Kentucky).

Voter Registration Change in Competitive Senate Elections 2008–2014

The uptick in Independent registration means that many candidates will need to woo more of these voters to win in November. Independent registration has increased the most in Colorado, rising by 40%. But we don’t know what percentage Independents will be of those who turn out to vote in November. Turning to exit poll data from the 2008 elections can be instructive here. In 2008, Independents comprised 39% of voters in the exit poll (and 30% of registered voters—meaning that Independents voted in higher numbers than registration data suggested) and Sen. Mark Udall (D–CO) garnered 55% of their vote. In Louisiana, Independents were 20% of voters in the 2008 exit poll and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D–LA) won 51% of them. In the 2010 exit poll, Independents composed 24% of Bayou State voters—a slight uptick. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH) received 55% of the Independent vote in the 2008 exit poll—key to her victory, as they composed 44% of the electorate. Sen. Kay Hagan (D–NC) is the only Democratic Senator on the list who didn't win Independents outright in 2008, though they compose a smaller portion of voters in North Carolina than in most of the other states.

Independents in the 2008 Exit Poll

Iowa data is for Sen. Harkin, who is retiring.

In Iowa, Democratic registration fell by 14%, while Republican registration rose slightly. There was little movement among Independents. But they are a crucial block of voters, composing about one-third of votes cast over the last 3 election cycles. Sen. Tom Harkin (D–IA) won 61% of their vote in his 2008 reelection. For comparison, Gov. Terry Branstad (R–IA) won 51% of the Independent vote in 2010; President Obama earned 55% of their support in 2012. Independents could tip the scales once again in Iowa, depending on their turnout rates.

Independent Greg Orman’s candidacy in Kansas has been viewed as a result of the opportunity Sen. Pat Roberts (R–KS) provided—with his residency issues making up just part of that story. But the data suggest that Kansas has been undergoing a transition for some time. Democratic registration is sharply down and Republican registration is down slightly. At the same time, Independent registration has jumped 11% since 2008. Independents composed 25% of the electorate in the 2008 exit poll and Sen. Roberts won 50% of them. Mitt Romney performed only slightly better in 2012, winning 51%. In deep red Kansas, Republicans are having a hard time attracting the Independent vote—potentially fertile ground for an Independent candidate such as Greg Orman.

Looking at the states with the most competitive races for Governor, Independent voter registration rivals partisans.

In the four* states with partisan voter registration and competitive Gubernatorial races, Independents have increased while partisan registration has stagnated. Since 2008, in these four states:

  • Democratic registration has decreased by 227,239 or 3.5% and now stands at 6,223,288;
  • Republican registration has increased by 124,500 or 2.1% and now stands at 6,123,947; and,
  • Independent registration has increased by 914,535 or 22.4% and now stands at 4,990,991.

A competitive governor’s race may be brewing in Alaska as well. However, Alaska is excluded from this analysis because we have scant data on how close the unity ticket is faring against the Republican incumbent Gov. Parnell.

2014 Voter Registration in States with Competitive Gubernatorial Races

The overall shift varies wildly from place to place. In Colorado and Maine, Independents now constitute a plurality of voters, outnumbering Democrats and Republicans. This was not the case in 2008 or 2010 in Colorado, where Independent registration lagged both of the parties. In Maine, Independents were a plurality in 2008, with Democrats coming in a close second. That holds true in 2014, but Independents have expanded their lead on Democrats by about 5,000 voters—with the Independent advantage shifting from +40,869 in 2008 to +45,719 today. Overall, three of the four states have seen double digit increases in Independent voters since 2008, with Independents growing substantially faster than any other group.

Voter Registration Changes in Competitive Governor’s Races 2008–2014

In Florida, there were nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Independents in 2008 (4.8 million and 2.5 million respectively). When Gov. Rick Scott (R–FL) won in 2010, Independent registration lagged Democrats by approximately 2 million and lagged Republicans by approximately 1.5 million. But Independents are closing the gap. They have increased by 23% since 2008 and now trail Democratic and Republican registration by 1.5 million and 1 million respectively.

In Kansas, there were fewer Independents than Democrats in 2008, with Republican registration outpacing both. By 2010, Democratic registration had fallen below Independents, even though Independent registration had barely budged. But after 2010, Independent registration rose by nearly 50,000. And 77% of the overall gains in Independent registration since 2008 occurred after Gov. Sam Brownback (R–KS) was elected in 2010. While Gov. Brownback has moved sharply to the right, it’s clear that his constituents haven’t.

Conclusion

The negative perceptions Americans have of the parties and government are showing up across the country in voter registration data. In competitive Senate and Gubernatorial races, Independent registration is outpacing that of both Democrats and Republicans. Rather than being outliers, Orman’s Independent candidacy in Kansas and former Gov. Charlie Crist’s Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democratic bid in Florida might be shrewd calculations, freeing both from perceptions that they are ideologues. Win or lose, one thing is clear: the six year itch is evident, and it’s showing disappointment with both parties.

Appendix A: 2014 Voter Registration

Voter Registration September 2014

Appendix B: Sources

2008

Alaska: http://www.elections.alaska.gov/statistics/vi_vrs_stats_party_2008.10.12.htm

Arizona: http://www.azsos.gov/election/voterreg/2008-10-22.pdf; http://www.azsos.gov/election/voterreg/VRcounts2008.htm

California: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/ror-pages/15day-presgen-08/county.pdf; http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/ror-pages/15day-presgen-08/ror-102008.htm

Colorado: http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/VoterRegNumbers/2008VoterRegNumbers.html; http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/VoterRegNumbers/2008/December/PartyAffiliation.pdf

Delaware: http://elections.delaware.gov/reports/agprpt_2008.html

DC: http://www.dcboee.org/voter_stats/voter_reg/2008.asp

Florida: http://election.dos.state.fl.us/nvra/history.asp

Iowa: http://sos.iowa.gov/elections/voterreg/county.html; http://sos.iowa.gov/elections/pdf/VRStatsArchive/2008/CoNov08.pdf

Kansas: http://www.kssos.org/elections/elections_statistics.html

Kentucky: http://elect.ky.gov/SiteCollectionDocuments/Election%20Results/2000-2009/2008/General%20Election/Voter%20Reg%20Stat%20Cong%20Dist%20gen%2008.txt

Louisiana: http://www.sos.la.gov/ElectionsAndVoting/Pages/RegistrationStatisticsStatewide.aspx; http://electionstatistics.sos.la.gov/Data/Registration_Statistics/Statewide/2008_1103_sta_comb.pdf

Maine: http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/prevregandenroll.htm; http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/2010/20081104r-e-active.pdf; http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/2010/20080610r-e-inactive.pdf

Maryland: http://www.elections.state.md.us/voter_registration/stats.html; http://www.elections.state.md.us/pdf/vrar/2008_10.pdf

Massachusetts: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/ele08/ele08idx.htm; http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/elepdf/st_county_town_enroll_breakdown_08.pdf

Nevada: http://nvsos.gov/SOSElectionPages/voter-reg/2008/CLOSEmaina.aspx

New Hampshire: http://sos.nh.gov/NamesHistory.aspx

New Jersey: http://nj.gov/state/elections/election-information-archive-2008.html#2; http://nj.gov/state/elections/election-results/2008-voter-registration-summary102008.pdf

New Mexico: http://www.sos.state.nm.us/Elections_Data/2008_Voter_Registration_Data.aspx; http://www.sos.state.nm.us/uploads/FileLinks/09831ac556354351b60da1c7e4f5b3f2/StatewideGen2008.pdf

New York: http://www.elections.ny.gov/EnrollmentCounty.html; http://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/enrollment/county/county_nov08.pdf

North Carolina: http://www.app.sboe.state.nc.us/webapps/voter_stats/results.aspx?date=11-04-2008

Oklahoma: http://www.ok.gov/elections/Voter_Registration/Voter_Registration_Reports/index.html; http://www.ok.gov/elections/documents/reg_0109.pdf

Oregon: http://bluebook.state.or.us/state/elections/elections07.htm

Pennsylvania: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=572645&mode=2

South Dakota: http://sdsos.gov/content/viewcontent.aspx?cat=elections&pg=/elections/upcomingelection_2008PrimaryRegComp.htm

West Virginia: http://www.sos.wv.gov/elections/history/Pages/Voter_Registration_History.aspx; http://www.sos.wv.gov/elections/history/Documents/Voter%20Registration%20Totals/VR%20November%202008.pdf

Wyoming: http://soswy.state.wy.us/Elections/VRStats.aspx; http://soswy.state.wy.us/Elections/Docs/VRStats/2008VR_stats.pdf

2014

Alaska: http://www.elections.alaska.gov/statistics/vi_vrs_stats_party_2014.09.03.htm

Arizona: http://www.azsos.gov/election/voterreg/2014-08-15.pdf; http://www.azsos.gov/election/voterreg/VRcounts2014.htm

California: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/ror-pages/15day-primary-2014/congressional.pdf; http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/ror-pages/15day-primary-2014/

Colorado: http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/VoterRegNumbers/2014/August/VotersByPartyStatus.pdf

Delaware: http://elections.delaware.gov/reports/e70r2601_20140901.shtml

DC: https://www.dcboee.org/voter_stats/voter_reg/2014.asp

Florida: http://election.dos.state.fl.us/nvra/history.asp

Iowa: http://sos.iowa.gov/elections/voterreg/county.html; http://sos.iowa.gov/elections/pdf/VRStatsArchive/2014/CoSept14.pdf

Kansas: http://www.kssos.org/elections/elections_statistics.html

Kentucky: https://vr.sos.ky.gov/stats/voterstatsdistrict.pdf

Louisiana: http://www.sos.la.gov/ElectionsAndVoting/Pages/RegistrationStatisticsStatewide.aspx; http://electionstatistics.sos.la.gov/Data/Registration_Statistics/Statewide/2014_0901_sta_comb.pdf

Maine: http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/data.htm; http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/r-e-active.pdf

Maryland: http://www.elections.state.md.us/voter_registration/stats.html; http://www.elections.state.md.us/pdf/vrar/2014_08.pdf

Massachusetts: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/ele14/ele14idx.htm; http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/elepdf/enrollment_counts_20140820.pdf

Nevada: http://www.nvsos.gov/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=3475

New Hampshire: http://sos.nh.gov/NamesHistory.aspx

New Jersey: http://www.nj.gov/state/elections/election-information-archive-2014.html - svrs; http://www.nj.gov/state/elections/2014-results/2014-0903-voter-registration-by-congressional-district.pdf

New Mexico: http://www.sos.state.nm.us/Elections_Data/2014-voter-registration-data.aspx; http://www.sos.state.nm.us/uploads/FileLinks/558ca6801ade495195d87cc7f0af418e/STATEWIDE_13.PDF

New York: http://www.elections.ny.gov/EnrollmentCD.html; http://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/enrollment/congress/congress_apr14.pdf

North Carolina: http://www.ncsbe.gov/webapps/voter_stats/results.aspx?date=09-20-2014

Oklahoma: http://www.ok.gov/elections/Voter_Registration/Voter_Registration_Reports/index.html; http://www.ok.gov/elections/documents/reg_0114.pdf

Oregon: http://www.oregonvotes.gov/pages/history/stats/14mvr.html; http://www.oregonvotes.gov/doc/voterresources/registration/Aug14.pdf

Pennsylvania: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=572645&mode=2

South Dakota: http://sdsos.gov/elections-voting/upcoming-elections/voter-registration-totals/voter-registration-comparison-table.aspx

West Virginia: Secretary of State emailed data

Wyoming: http://soswy.state.wy.us/Elections/VRStats.aspx; http://soswy.state.wy.us/Elections/Docs/VRStats/2014/14SepVR_stats.pdf

Appendix C: Definitions and Dates

State

Definition of Independent

Active v. Inactive

2008 Data

2014 Data

Alaska

Undeclared and Nonpartisan

Active

Book Closing

9/3/2014

Arizona

Other (includes minor parties)

Active

Book Closing

8/22/2014

California

No Party Preference

No distinction provided

Book Closing

5/19/2014

Colorado

Unaffiliated (UAF)

Active

12/30/2008

9/1/2014

Delaware

All Others (includes minor parties)

No distinction provided

General Election

9/1/2014

DC

Non-Partisan (N-P)

Active

General Election

8/31/2014

Florida

Other (includes minor parties)

Active

2008

August 2014

Iowa

No Party (NP)

Active

November 2008

9/2/2014

Kansas

Unaffiliated

Active

October 2008

7/1/2014

Kentucky

Other (includes minor parties)

Active

11/4/2008

9/15/2014

Louisiana

Other Parties (includes minor parties)

No distinction provided

11/2/2008

9/1/2014

Maine

Unenrolled

Active

11/4/2008

6/10/2014

Maryland

Unaffiliated (UNAF)

Active

10/31/2008

August 2014

Massachusetts

Unenrolled

No distinction provided

10/15/2008

8/20/2014

Nevada

Non Partisan

Active

General Election

August 2014

New Hampshire

Undeclared

Active

11/4/2008

1/15/2014

New Jersey

Unaffiliated

No distinction provided

10/20/2008

9/3/2014

New Mexico

Declined To State (DTS)

No distinction provided

10/17/2008

9/2/2014

New York

Blank

Active

November 2008

4/1/2014

North Carolina

Unaffiliated

No distinction provided

11/4/2008

9/20/2014

Oklahoma

Independent (Ind)

Active and Inactive

1/15/2009

1/15/2014

Oregon

Other + Non Affiliated Voters (NAV) (inlcudes minor parties)

Active

General Election

8/1/2014

Pennsylvania

Other Parties (includes minor parties)

Active and Inactive

November 2008

5/20/2014

South Dakota

No Party Affiliation and Independents (NPA + IND)

Active

General Election

9/2/2014

West Virginia

No Party

No distinction provided

November 2008

August 2014

Wyoming

Unaffiliated

Active

11/4/2008

9/2/2014

  1. Real Clear Politics, “Congressional Job Approval,” Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/congressional_job_approval-903.html.

  2. “GOP Has Midterm Engagement Advantage,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Released July 24, 2014, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2014/07/24/section-1-the-2014-midterm-voter-preferences-voter-engagement/#high-anti-incumbent-sentiment-among-both-parties.

  3. “Section 1: The 2014 Midterm: Voter Preferences, Voter Engagement,” GOP Has Midterm Engagement Advantage, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Released July 24, 2014, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2014/07/24/section-2-public-views-of-congress-voters-views-of-their-own-representatives/.

  4. “Section 2: Public Views of Congress; Voters’ Views of Their Own Representatives,” GOP Has Midterm Engagement Advantage, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Released July 24, 2014, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2014/07/24/section-2-public-views-of-congress-voters-views-of-their-own-representatives/.

  5. Frank Newport, “Dysfunctional Gov’t Surpasses Economy as Top U.S. Problem,” Gallup, Released October 9, 2013, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165302/dysfunctional-gov-surpasses-economy-top-problem.aspx.

  6. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans Continue to Say a Third Political Party Is Needed,” Gallup, Released September 24, 2014, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/177284/americans-continue-say-third-political-party-needed.aspx.

  7. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Record-High 42% of Americans Identify as Independents,” Gallup, Released January 8, 2014, Accessed September 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/166763/record-high-americans-identify-independents.aspxhttp://www.gallup.com/poll/166763/record-high-americans-identify-independents.aspx.

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