Anti-Incumbency and Independent Ascendancy

A new survey from the Pew Research Center highlights "widespread anti-incumbent sentiment" among likely voters and the electorate at large:
Only about a third (34%) of registered voters say they think most members of Congress should be re-elected next year, which is on par with ratings during the 1994 and 2006 elections. Meanwhile, just 52% of voters say they want to see their own member re-elected, approaching levels in early October 2006 (50%) and 1994 (49%). [Emphasis added.]

In November 1994, 68% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans favored the re-election of their own member of Congress, which is comparable to the current figures (64% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans). But today, just 42% of independents want to see their own representative re-elected, compared with 52% of independents on the eve of the 1994 midterm elections.

Partisan feelings about incumbents were the reverse in 2006, when the GOP held majorities in the House and Senate. In November 2006, 69% of Republicans, 52% of Democrats and 45% of independents wanted to see their own member of Congress re-elected.

One of the enduring paradoxes of US politics under the conditions of the two-party state is the disparity between individuals' attitudes toward the Congress as a whole, on the one hand, and their own representatives, on the other. This disconnect can go some way toward explaining the power of incumbency even in times of widespread anti-incumbent sentiment. Meanwhile, support for third party alternatives to the Democratic-Republican duopoly system of government is holding steady. A majority of Americans support the idea of a major third party:
Just over half (52%) of Americans say the U.S. should have a third major political party in addition to the Democrats and Republicans, while four-in-ten (40%) disagree. This is little changed from last year, when 56% favored a third party and 38% opposed the idea.

Support for a third party continues to be widespread among independents. As was the case last year, 70% of independents say we should have a third major political party. Just 44% of both Republicans and Democrats agree. There is also a consistent difference between younger and older Americans. In the current poll, 63% of Americans under age 30 support the idea of a third political party, compared with just 37% of those ages 65 and older.

Given such numbers, one might wonder why support for actual independent and third party alternatives to the stooges of the Democratic-Republican Party remains relatively low. This disparity, at least at the national level, is at least partly explained by the ideological diversity of political independents. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver recently provided a helpful typology of independent voters, writing:

the category of ‘independents’ includes:
1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

For local and state level polities, however, the ranks of independents are likely somewhat more homogeneous. Consider two recent polls tracking support for gubernatorial candidates in the Northeast. In Massachusetts, support for independent candidate Tim Cahill puts him in a statistical tie with the incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick's likely Republican rivals. From Rasmussen, via The Thirds:

Patrick now captures 34% of the vote against either possible Republican challenger, Christy Mihos or Charlie Baker, when newly announced independent candidate Tim Cahill is added to the mix. Mihos earns 23% of the vote in a three-way race. Baker picks up 24% in a contest with Patrick and Cahill. In both scenarios, Cahill, the state treasurer who was elected as a Democrat but quit the party this summer, gets 23% of the vote and 19% are undecided.

In a recent poll from Rhode Island, independent gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee is leading both likely Democratic rivals and the probably Republican candidate. The Thirds sums up the findings:

The poll has independent former Senator Lincoln Chafee leading in races versus Republican Rory Smith, and Democrats General Treasurer Frank Caprio and Attorney General Patrick Lynch. The poll shows the former Republican Chafee getting 36 or 37 percent of the vote depending up on the match-up. In a race versus and Attorney General Lynch and Smith Chafee leads 37-24-15. The match-up is much closer with the Democrat being General Treasurer Caprio, but Chafee is still in the lead 36-34-8. In the poll undecideds are still in the 20’s.

These are two races to keep an eye on.

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