Anna and the Independent Voter: Hard to Organize, Harder to Keep

President Obama is losing support among independents, and there’s a mad dash among political organizers to grab them as they peel off.

But their approach differs on how they diagnose who independent voters are and what they care about. Some independents are fiscal moderates and social liberals. Others are libertarians, who want no part in big government or big political parties. And for other voters, as we heard in Colorado, declaring independence is a way for voters to distance themselves from the gridlock and nastiness in Washington.

And their success will depend on their ability to navigate the political graveyard that’s littered with efforts to change the system during hotly contested, highly partisan political campaigns.

The Fraying Obama Coalition

Independents are increasingly unhappy with Obama. In a Pew poll conducted in late July, only about a third of independent voters said they wanted him to be reelected. And for the first time, a majority of independents disapproved of the job he’s doing.

That’s a far cry from 2008, when Obama still basked in the post-partisan afterglow of his blue state/red state speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and saw independents break for him over another independent darling, John McCain.

And Obama is doing his best to acknowledge things are awry. “Lord knows we still have a dysfunctional political system in Washington, as we just witnessed over the last couple of weeks,” he told a group of donors in Washington on Monday night. He said his victory in 2008 was the beginning of a transformation in Washington, but admitted “what I think has been clear certainly this week is that this process is not complete.”

It’s the System, not the Issues

Jackie Salit, an advocate for independent voters and president of independentvoting.org, said independents have soured on Obama not because of his stance on particular issues, but because he misread what they were after.

“The president and his advisers have made a very serious mistake in looking at independents as centrists, and thereby thinking that what the president needs to do in order to build support among independents and create a coalition between Democrats and independent voters is to act as the mediator between the two parties,” she said in an interview in New York. “What I’m hearing is when is President Obama going to stand up for making the process less partisan?”

Independents do not subscribe to a single political platform, as a Pew study of the changing political landscape affirmed in May. What they do agree on, Salit said, is that it’s time to unlock Democrats and Republicans’ lock on the political process.

“I actually believe in listening to the thing that people are saying,” she said. “I think what they're saying is, 'I do not wish to belong to a political party.' In a society such as ours, which is a 2-party system, that's a pretty damn explosive and important thing to say.”

That means there is political will for open primaries nationwide, to ensure independents have a say in the nominating process. But she also envisions other structural changes like reimagining the caucus structure in Congress, or moving away from the strictly partisan appointments to the Federal Elections Commission.

Her group coordinates with grassroots activists across the country who are pursuing these kinds of changes. In Arizona, former Democratic legislator Ted Downing is part of a petition effort to change Arizona’s primaries to a top-two system, where all voters would vote in a single primary, and the two finishers would move on to the general election. If his group, Open Government, is able to collect the required signatures, the constitutional amendment will be on the ballot in November 2012.

He called the Arizona “the source of hyperpartisanship.” Getting this through in the state that was home to the divisive immigration debate and the Tucson shooting that prompted a temporary rethinking of the state of civil discourse, “could hopefully send a message nationwide.”

This is what independents really wanted from a “transformational” presidency, these advocates argue, but his action has left them launching local efforts that are running parallel to his presidential campaign, not in coordination with it.

It’s the Incentives, not the Parties

That’s not the only prescription for the disaffection stewing in American politics. No Labels, a hybrid of Washington powerbrokers and grassroots organizers, launched last December, has a totally different read. The problem isn’t the two parties, its leaders argue, it’s that there are not enough political advantages to moving out of the farthest reaches of the party’s extremes.

No Labels has spent the last eight months trying to build a system of incentives to change that. At this point, they are about 100,000 strong, with chapters in about 400 of the 435 Congressional districts. In Washington, organizers are working to form a No Labels caucus for moderate, bipartisan-minded lawmakers, to be a counterweight to the Tea Party caucus. From the local chapters, leaders like Debra Hauser in New Haven, Connecticut, call into a weekly national conference calls and try to stoke local conversation about moderate, centrist politics. In July, the group co-sponsored a forum with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and former independent Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker.

Hauser, a former Hillary Clinton volunteer who ran as a Democrat for state legislature in 2010, acknowledged it’s not been without its challenges. For one, it’s caused some rifts with her former political allies. “I’ve not been hearing from my Democratic colleagues at times,” she said. “This is somewhat of a rebellious movement.”

That’s the challenge for this kind of broad-based, bipartisan effort in the heat of a hotly contested electoral contest. If you’re not working in a political party’s interest, how do you determine who’s on your side? And where does the other side start?

For now, No Labels hasn’t determined who it will support in the presidential contest. But there are some races it is targeting. Debra Hauser already has a day of action marked on her calendar to help moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who is facing a primary challenge, and it’s in contests like this where No Labels has to demonstrate there’s political power behind the policy platitudes.

No, It’s the Internet!

Finally, there’s Americans Elect, who agree with independent advocates that the 2-party primary system, and assume, like No Labels, that with electronic assistance, there is a coherent political platform that will appeal to waves of voters who are dissatisfied with the status quo.

“We’ve seen that there is a real sense of disenfranchisement that exists among American voters,” said Elliot Ackerman, the Chief Operating Officer of Americans Elect. “They want real answers to the problems that our country’s facing, but the parties aren’t serving them up. And they don’t know how to self-correct. They don’t feel like they have a mechanism to do that.”

The Americans Elect plan is to hold a nonpartisan, internet-based nominating convention, to pick ticket that will appear on ballots in all 50 states. Organizers are in the midst of collecting signatures to meet each state’s requirements for ballot access. What the Ameircans Elect candidate will be for isn’t clear yet. (The “define your priorities” section of the site is still in beta.) Once that is settled, the idea is that Americans Elect members will draft candidates, rigorously question them with a set of questions the crowd defines, and then in June, everyone votes in a nominating convention.

One thing the public won’t know, however, is who is paying for all this. Americans Elect isn’t taking PACs or industry organizations, but it’s also not disclosing all their individual donors.

Ackerman said any hesitancy donors have to be publicly identified points back to “the toxic nature of partisan politics right now.”

“Folks who are trying to build an open nominating for a ticket to be directly nominated by the American people feel at some level uncomfortable doing that because they're going to be attacked by the two major parties,” he said.

Americans Elect grew out of Unity 08, an effort to give Americans a way to create a bipartisan ticket for president. But after the Federal Elections Commission ruled that organization was functioning as a minor political party, and therefore, had to adhere to the contribution limits of PACs, it closed up shop. “They knew exactly what they were doing by categorizing it that way,” said Ackerman now. That decision was later overturned in court, which set the stage for the revamped Americans Elect effort in 2012.

Another postscript to their efforts is the difficulty of translating bipartisan campaign themes into governing. A letter to Unity 08 supporters is still up on that old website, which touts some of its accomplishments. Among them, “Barack Obama…has made the theme of unity and the necessity of bridging the partisan divide an absolutely central theme of his campaign.”