Americans are leaving both political parties in large numbers and are identifying themselves as Independents or third-party supporters. The exodus is so large that the share of Independent voters is now bigger than either Democrats or Republicans.
That's the key finding from an analysis conducted by IBD/TIPP. The analysis compared party affiliation data from IBD/TIPP polls conducted in the first half of 2009 to the second half of 2009. Each period had more than 5,000 respondents.
The share of voters who identify themselves as Democrats dropped from 39% to 35%, and the share of Republicans edged down from 29% to 28%. Independents rose from 32% to 37%.
The biggest exodus from Democrat and Republican to Independent is taking place among rural voters, high school educated and Midwesterners. Democrats suffered a 7-point loss among three groups: high school graduates, Midwesterners and 18- to 44-year-olds.
What's behind the swelling of Independent ranks?
As far as Democrats are concerned, a key reason is the state of the economy and high unemployment. Departing Democrats placed a great deal of faith in President Obama to turn around the economy, and that's not happening to their satisfaction. Double-digit unemployment only adds to the misery. Further, the debt that Washington is racking up is viewed with alarm.
In February, Democratic politicians told the country the stimulus would keep the jobless rate below 8%. The public went along only to watch the rate top 10%.
An overwhelming two-thirds of Americans in our poll said the stimulus fell short of their expectations in creating jobs. A little more than one in five (22%) said it had met their expectations and only one in 15 (6%) said it exceeded their expectations.
Even Democrats are underwhelmed. Nearly half (48%) of them said the package has fallen short vs. 45% who said it met or exceeded their expectations.
This has fostered resentment among some Democrats and is the chief cause for their patience running out, eventually bidding farewell to the party.
The Democrats who are exiting are ideological moderates. In the first half of 2009, the party was home to 43% of moderates. Moderates represented 20% of Republicans and 37% of Independents. This is no longer true. Now Democrats and Independents each have 40% of the moderates, while the Republicans still have 20%.
Republicans have their own problems, which date back to September 2008 and the fall of Lehman Bros. The ensuing months - with bailouts, bank failures and financial turmoil - resulted in what could be described as a financial 9/11. And rightly or wrongly, the GOP gets the blame because it was the party in power. The time that has passed is not sufficient for memories to fade and Republicans to earn redemption.
Another Republican handicap is the absence of a leader with a proven record of inspiring the grass roots and rallying the troops.
Historically, the United States is a center-right country. One byproduct of this year's environment is the reassertion of voters' conservative values. Ironically, however, our analysis shows that Republicans are losing even conservatives.
In the first half of the year, party composition among conservatives was 21% Democrat, 50% Republican and 29% Independent. In the second half, it is 20% Democratic, 45% Republican and 34% Independent.
Independent voters are now kingmakers. They base their votes on individual candidates and issues. They do not have a long-standing loyalty to a political party and do not usually vote for the same political party in each election.
In 2008, Barack Obama was able to win comfortably with 52% of Independents in his corner vs. 44% for John McCain.
Independents are a rising force and, with voter dissatisfaction running high, a group to watch in 2012. If this brings merit to the fore in future elections, it could be a change for the better.
Mayur is president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which directs the IBD/TIPP Poll that was the most accurate in the last two presidential elections.