Anna and the Independent Voter: Colorado Lessons

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The swing state of Colorado, where the ranks of independent voters are growing and sure to be decisive in 2012. (Anna Sale/WNYC)

All through August, we're searching for the independent voter. These are the prize voters who could make up the margin in the 2012 contest, but their definition is elusive and their politics mixed.

The Pew Research Center took a stab at defining independent voters in their May report on political typologies. They broke them down into three categories:

1. Libertarians, who favor secular social policies and free market fiscal policies

2. Disaffecteds, who are cynical about the political process and lean Republican, but favor aid to the poor

3. Post-moderns, who favor moderate fiscal policies and liberal social policies.

Together, Pew found this mix group of independents represent 35 percent of registered voters.

I started our search this week in Colorado, with a first stop in Fort Collins, which is in Larimer County. I picked Fort Collins because it has more registered independent "unaffiliated" voters than Republicans or Democrats, and it's in a swing Congressional District that went from Republican to Democrat and back to Republican in the last three elections.

And that stands out, because in Colorado, voters have to be a member of one of the major parties to vote in their primaries. I continued on to Greeley, were Republicans continue to win by large margins, but population is steadily declining. I ended the day in Colorado Springs, a Republican stronghold that is home to the Air Force Academy and Air Force and Army bases, where voters told me they leaned Republican, but that's where their similarities ended. 

Talking to voters in the shadow of the debt ceiling deal, calling yourself an independent was a badge of honor, and it didn't necessarily mean they weren't a member of the Democratic or Republican party. Rather, voters this week seemed to embrace independent as a self-definition to draw a line between their politics and the debate in Washington, which conservative and liberal voters alike derided as a mess.

"I'm registered as a Democrat, but I do consider myself an independent," said John Niesel, who works at a bank and runs a framing business that caters to military families in Fort Collins. "I register as a Democrat so I can vote in the primaries."  

"It can just be very distressing, and very disconcerting," he said of the current scene in Washington. On President Obama, Niesel said he's been largely satisfied. "He's certainly done the best that he can with a divided House of Representatives in Congress. I'll just have to see who comes on the scene."

"This economy hasn't got any better. This economy sucks, right?" said Derrick Sears, a 29 year-old Ft. Collins resident. His work installing electronic systems in new homes has fallen off during the recession, and he's been laid off several times. He's gone back to community college to study biology and had plans to transfer to the four-year Colorado State University. "Now, they just announced that tuittion's raised 20 percent, and I started doing the math, and I can't afford it."

"I lean more to the left. I tend to go along with more what Democrats' views are more than Republicans. And I don't put that tag on me -- Democrat or Republican," he said, though he is a registered Democrat. "The politicians are looking out for themselves and their own political careers instead of looking out for waht's best for Americans, our children, our future, our education," 

"For a majority of voters in the district, there is a weariness or an antipathy about the culture wars. And there's also a belief in environmental protection, green jobs, clean energy -- those sorts of things that cut across the traditional ideological mixes," said Robert Duffy, the chairman of the political science department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "It's not unusual in this town to meet folks who are Republicans who ride their bikes to work and compost because that's just part of the culture here. So it's not a left/right sort of thing."

"Generally independent, but leaning towards being a Democrat," said Jim Kriewall, who is a registered Democrat. "I think it's a mess and it's disappointing that these people don't really represent us. They represent business interests, and my general feeling is their only chore is to get themselves reelected. 

"When I was growing up, my generation had an opportunity to do so much better than their parents," said the 70 year-old, who moved to Fort Collins from California to be closer to his grandchildren. "They gave me a chance to get ahead. I tried to give my son the same thing. He's hard-pressed to

"I think it stinks. Sorry. Big time," Colleen Murphy of Greeley, a self-described Reagan Republican, said about the current debate in Washington. "Let's get out of debt and quick sending all our money to someone else in other countries. America helps everybody else, but nobody helps America.

"I didn't vote for Obama in the first place and he better never run again," she said. "His dreams and aspirations never came about. I'm not too sure. It's weird because I can't pinpoint what I don't like about it, but I just don't like him."

Painter Mike Rogers said his painting business has dropped off eighty percent since the recession, and he's having trouble paying bills. "The unemployment line doesn't include me," he said. 

A Republican and lifelong resident of Colorado Springs, he voted for Obama in 2008. "He went in kicking doors down, but it was irritating a lot of people because no one could get it stopped." But he's not planning on voting for him again. "No, go for someone new. Because he hasn't picked up any pace that I can see."

"Gosh. I think it's because I'm not that political," Elizabeth Bongiovanni said to explain why she's a registered independent. "And my husband is a raging Republican so I just try to stay neutral, and just not be so opinionated. I just try to go with the flow."

She lives in Colorado Springs, voted for John McCain in 2008, and does not support President Obama. She works as a veterinary technician, but her husband lost his tattoo business this year, and she said she's just hoping he finds work before their second child is due in November. "Unsure, insecure, unstable," she said to describe her present outlook. "I just hope things get better."

"I'm a native from Greeley, Colorado. And I'm considered a Republican, I guess," Ellie Durand, a dirt contractor who's seen his business fall off with the slowing of new construction. "It's been terrible the last three, four years. I'm starting to see a slight change in improvement. We have been in business for 33 years. This has been the toughest time I've seen in my history of business."

"I think a lot has to do with the banking industry," he said of whom he blames. "That they overcommitted and negligent with loans and caused a lot of people to go out of business and caused a financial crisis. Whether it's people in Congress, I'm sure they've got their finger in it, and what they've done and how they've allowed that to happen."

"I am not attached to any political party, but I am conservative," T. Mike Cegielski to describe his politics. A native of Poland, he's lived in Colorado Springs since the mid-1980s, where he retired from the Air Force and has taught at the Air Force Academy. "I've stopped totally supporting financially the Republican Party. I support only individuals." He is still a registered Republican so he can vote in Colorado's closed party primaries. 

"In Europe, in political parties, both on the left and the right, if you don't adhere to the beliefs of your party, they'll kick you out. And I like that," he said. "When somebody puts whatever letter behind their name, you don't have to worry about what they really believe."


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Comments [10]

Great segment. Numerous callers mentioned the flip side of this issue which is the real issue: the two party system is *totally broken*. We are all independent voters whether we know it or not, because neither party represents anything but it's own interests.

Aug. 09 2011 04:56 PM
Lonnie from Brooklyn!!!

I'm a Registered Republican-- but I find a lot of my 'Independent' friends who 'SAY' they vote, when the election comes and goes, they just stayed home-- Why? because they didn't like the choices.

Worse: they think that Staying Home 'Sent a Message'

Well, smell the coffee-- Not Voting Makes the entrenched politician happy because he knows that YOUR vote won't mess up his predictive totals.

And last on the Independent Thing-- They tend not to like the choices served up to them in November. But since they aren't affiliated, they don't take part in SELECTING the Party Candidates. The Republicans are infested with Tea Party politicians because Moderates who vote Republican did not go to the Primary Polls.

I can STILL vote whichever party I want in November, but at least I put my vote in the pot to trend the GOP selection back towards Sanity.

So in my view, 'Independent' Voters have been oversold as 'Election Makers'. They don't choose the Primary winners, and they don't like the November Selections. But they want to have their Cake & Eat it.

Get off the Fence and get your feet dirty.

Aug. 04 2011 11:31 AM

I understand looking out at the political choices and not seeing anyone who represents your particular values and viewpoints. I am a progressive liberal who finds very few politicians who I can vote for in my area. However, I take it as a responsibility to vote for someone who is the closest - or who I believe won't undo what I think is important. Of course, that is usually the Dem candidate. To not vote is a crime.

Aug. 04 2011 11:10 AM
John A.

I have loyalty to the candidate I view as the more mature decision-maker. Party does not matter.
Actually party does matter... If the candidate comes off as a party-boy or girl, cheer-leader, ex-model, a font of "convenient", sell-able truths. Then No way! Give us the responsible path. // About 50-50 R-D in voting, but no R for the foreseeable future.

Aug. 04 2011 11:09 AM
R Moore from Manhattan

Did you know that an independent voter (i.e one not registered with a political party) cannot assist at General Elections in NY State? Why? The Election Commission, when asked, could not really explain.

Aug. 04 2011 11:05 AM
Robert from NYC

I am an independent voter and would ask Mr. Obama to please not run for a second term. He has failed and continues to wimp along day by day listening to and believing his own rhetoric, which is all it is. Please do not run again.

Aug. 04 2011 11:04 AM

I am register independent because at the time i could not figure out who could represent me better. So I vote depending on the issues.

Aug. 04 2011 11:00 AM

I vote every election on the issues. No loyalty to party or candidate.

Aug. 04 2011 11:00 AM
Edward from NJ

In the world of political debate, people use the label independent to validate their own positions: "I'm an independent, and [insert a conservative or liberal talking-point here]"

Aug. 04 2011 10:59 AM
Richard Williams from Larchmont, NY

I am a 50 year old unemployed music teacher who is a registered republican. However, I have never voted straight down the republican line at the state or federal level. I am always drawn to third party candidates. Something has to happen to break the grip of the two "major" parties.

Aug. 04 2011 10:24 AM

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