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As our country’s politicians engage in bitter partisan battles, focused on protecting their own jobs but not on doing the nation’s business, and political pundits shout louder and shriller to improve their ratings, it’s no wonder that Americans have little faith in their government. But is America as divided as the politicians and talking heads would have us believe? Do half of Americans stand on the right and the other half on the left with a no-man’s-land between them?
Hardly. Forty percent of all American voters are Independents who occupy the ample political and ideological space in the center. These Americans are anything but divided, and they’re being ignored. These Independents make up the largest voting bloc in the nation and have determined the outcome of every election since World War II. Every year their numbers grow, as does the unconscionable disconnect between them and the officials who are supposed to represent them.
The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents tells the story of how our polarized political system is not only misrepresenting America but failing it. Linda Killian looks beyond the polls and the headlines and talks with the frustrated citizens who are raising the alarm about the acute bi-polarity, special interest-influence, and gridlock in Congress, asking why Obama’s postpartisan presidency is anything but, and demanding realism, honest negotiation, and a sense of responsibility from their elected officials.
Killian paints a vivid portrait of the swing voters around the country and presents a new model that reveals who they are and what they want from their government and elected officials. She also offers a way forward, including solutions for fixing our broken political system. This is not only a timely shot across the bows of both parties but an impassioned call to Independents to bring America back into balance.
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Linda Killian is a journalist and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has been a columnist for Politico, U.S. News & World Report.com, and Politics Daily. She has also written for The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard, among other national publications. Her previous book was The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution? She lives in Washington, D.C.
Who Are the Independent Voters?
A government of our own is our natural right.
NINETY-YEAR-OLD BETTY Hall lives in the 1850s farmhouse in Brookline, New Hampshire, where her grandmother was born. After graduating from Barnard College in 1943, working as an engineer with the Western Electric Company during World War II, and getting married, she returned to New Hampshire with her husband to start a textile manufacturing company and raise their five children.
Back then, only about eight hundred people lived in Brookline, which is about fifteen miles west of Nashua, and Hall’s children were educated in the town’s two-room schoolhouse. She felt the school needed improvement and better resources and decided to try to do something about it, so she ran for town school board and then selectman, explaining her reason for getting into politics.
She started out as a Republican. Most people in New Hampshire were. She first got elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1970 and served a total of twenty-eight years. “Liberal Republicans were fairly common then. I had a lot of great liberal Republican colleagues, but eventually they got pushed out.” In the 1980s, she found she was voting more often with the Democrats so she decided to change her party registration and was reelected to the legislature as a Democrat. But eventually she realized, “I was so sick of both parties, I decided I was going to be an Independent and escape from them telling me how to vote because I felt the most important thing was the responsibility to my constituents.”
Four years ago, she officially became an Independent and made a couple of unsuccessful runs for the state legislature in 2008 and 2010. “I called myself an Independent moderate. I knew the odds were going to be against me.”
Looking and sounding much younger than her ninety years, Hall recalls some of her political experiences, like the time she ran for a state senate seat by riding her bicycle one thousand miles around the district to campaign door-to-door. When President George W. Bush came to New Hampshire to speak in 2004, she protested outside the event with a sign that said BUSH IS BAD FOR AMERICA. A pen had been set up for protestors, but Hall refused to stay behind the barriers, and authorities arrested her and charged her with disorderly conduct. “They wanted me to do a plea bargain for twelve hours of community service, but I said no—I was not disorderly and I was going to defend myself. The judge totally exonerated me.” Hall was a member of the legislature at the time and introduced a bill to impeach Bush. “Don’t you think that didn’t stir up a hornet’s nest,” she says with a laugh.
“They call me a firebrand. Nobody knows what to make of me,” says Hall, who is something of a true New England eccentric. She says her children, along with twelve grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, “kill themselves laughing at me, but they’re very supportive of what I’m doing.”
Her hero and role model is Doris “Granny D” Haddock, the political activist who at the age of eighty-eight began walking across the United States to advocate for campaign finance reform. Granny D’s march took more than a year and ended in Washington, D.C., in 2000. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain–Feingold for its two sponsors, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, passed two years later.
In 2004, at the age of ninety-four, Granny D became the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire against incumbent Republican Judd Gregg, a campaign that was the subject of an HBO documentary called Run Granny Run. Granny D died in 2010 at the age of one hundred.
Hall says she is trying to follow in Granny D’s footsteps and is a strong supporter of election reform. “If the primaries were reformed, maybe there would be hope for the two parties. The whole system—the primary system—is functionally bankrupt. The only candidates that can prevail in a primary have to have tons of money. It’s all about money. I don’t like that the parties can tell people how to vote, and if they don’t toe the party line they won’t get elected again, because they won’t get the money and the party support.”
Using what she has learned from her many years in politics, Hall’s mission now is to push for more campaign-finance and election-law reform and encourage more Independent candidates to run for office.
“I’m not afraid to speak truth to power. I’ve always been a maverick. I’m going to live to be a hundred years old and I’m going to give them trouble all the way.”
Dr. James Squires was a moderate Republican all his life. The seventy-three-year-old retired physician lives in Hollis, a town of about seven thousand people in southeastern New Hampshire on the Massachusetts border. For twenty years, he has been the moderator of the annual town meeting, a New England tradition that began with the first Puritan settlers even before the United States was founded and which represents the purest form of democracy. Citizens gather in the spring to take up matters of interest to the town and to debate and approve the town budget. Anyone can speak, and everyone has the same vote.
Squires was elected to the state senate in 1996 and served for four years. “I kept trying to maintain that I was there to represent everyone in the state, not just the party that nominated me.” When he ran for reelection, Squires faced a primary challenge on the right. “I was confused, thinking there might be some middle ground in the Republican Party, but it was going away. The Republican Party moved past me to some new place I didn’t understand or agree with.”
In 2000, Squires ran for governor but lost the Republican nomination to a much more conservative candidate who was defeated in the general election. “The Republicans have made a mistake in being so extreme and exclusionary,” Squires believes. In a state where a majority of voters, like Squires, are pro-choice and favor gay marriage rights, the Republican Party demands complete allegiance and opposition to those positions.
“We’re becoming so polarized, there isn’t any room for a middle ground. My political philosophy is not based on ideology—I’m more pragmatic. I think each issue needs to be looked at and evaluated.”
Two years ago, Squires became what New Hampshire calls an “undeclared” voter, joining many moderate Republicans who have become Independents.
* * *
Scott Clinger is a forty-seven-year-old policeman in Columbus, Ohio, born and raised not far from where he lives now. He served in the Marine Corps for ten years before joining the force. His wife is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve got two grown children. She’s a Democrat, but he has always considered himself an Independent.
In 1984, he voted for Ronald Reagan. He liked Reagan’s vision of a strong America, and a strong military is important to him. He voted for George Bush in 1988 and ’92, but went for Bill Clinton in 1996. “I was happy with him. The main thing was that we had a balanced budget and a surplus.”
He voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and says, “That was a mistake.” In 2004, he voted for John Kerry. “When we invaded Iraq, I thought it was the worst thing ever—the dumbest thing we had ever done. I knew how expensive and long it would be.”
In 2008, Clinger liked McCain and says it was a tough choice for him. “I think the country was going in the wrong direction under George Bush. When McCain picked Sarah Palin, at first I thought she sounded pretty sparky, but then when she started talking, you said, ‘Oh my gosh, she doesn’t know anything.’
“I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on Obama, but I thought we did need some sort of change.” Clinger credits Obama for getting Osama bin Laden, but he’s not sure if he will vote for him again. “I have to look at who runs against him.”
Clinger says he likes to vote for both Democrats and Republicans because “I like to see balance—it forces them to come together and maybe come up with a better plan. With what’s been happening—it’s like the parties have gone just crazy. I don’t get why they can’t work with each other.”
As a member of a two-union household, Clinger is very concerned about the anti-union efforts around the country and especially the passage in Ohio of Senate Bill 5, which strips public unions of their collective bargaining rights. He says it would never have happened if the Republicans didn’t control both houses of the legislature and the governorship.
Depending on what kind of cuts take place as a result, he said he’s worried about being able to afford his mortgage payments. “This is nothing but a union-busting bill.” Clinger has never been politically active before, but now he spends weekends with his wife collecting signatures on petitions to repeal SB 5. Many union members in Ohio like Clinger have voted Republican in the past, but he thinks the Republicans “have committed political suicide.”
Ryan Ayers, thirty, and Allen Wells, thirty-one, live in Canton, Ohio, and have known each other since high school. I met them during the 2010 campaign at the North Canton Community Center, where they were attending a town hall meeting featuring the two candidates for Congress in Ohio’s Sixteenth District. Ayers and Wells are both married. Wells has three children and works at a factory that builds furnaces and electromagnets for steel mills. Ayers, a quality manager at a structural steel fabrication company, was expecting a baby.
Both men described themselves as Independent voters who lean to the right but vote for both Democrats and Republicans. Ayers is a member of the National Rifle Association. In 2008, they both voted for John McCain for president and for John Boccieri, the Democratic candidate, for Congress. Two years later, they were unhappy with the Democratic Congress and on the fence about whether Boccieri deserved another term. Ultimately, Wells voted for Republicans Jim Renacci for Congress and Rob Portman for Senate but supported Democrat Ted Strickland for reelection to the Ohio governorship. Ayers voted mostly for Republicans, including John Kasich for governor, a vote he said he regretted a few months after the election.
Wells was happy at first that the Republicans won the U.S. House and the Democrats held on to the Senate because he thought it might force the two parties to work together. But by the spring of 2011, he had become pessimistic. “It’s the same as usual in my opinion, they’re just putting on a big dog and pony show and not doing anything.... The Republicans don’t want government to do anything, and the Democrats want the government to do everything.... I don’t see much change. I hope they’re going to get this out of their system and start to work together.
“Most people you talk to, they think the election was about listening to what the voters have to say,” said Wells. “We were trying to tell the Democrats to slow down and listen to other views, but it wasn’t just a total endorsement of Republican conservative positions.”
“The American people have just had enough. They’re tired,” said Ayers. “Politicians are out of touch with us and they’re not listening to what we want. I don’t feel that the politicians really do what’s best for us.... In my household—you only pull in so much money. You can’t spend more than you bring in. The government can’t sustain deficit spending for a long time. They’ve been spending and spending and spending, and we’ve got to rein that in. We’ve got to concentrate on our own country, developing our own infrastructure to get people back to work.” Ayers lost one job when the plant he was working at moved from Ohio to North Carolina.
“The economy is the biggest thing right now, it’s hitting us hard in Ohio,” said Wells. “I’d like to see them sit down and look at trade agreements with other countries. There’s got to be a way to bring domestic jobs back.... Let’s hit companies that keep moving jobs overseas, hit them with a tariff or tax incentive to create jobs and punish them for sending jobs overseas.... But I think the American people have to step up too and say we’re buying only American-made stuff—instead of buying cheap stuff made in China at Walmart.”
“We need a true swing party,” Ayers believes. “I was hoping the Tea Party would do it, but they’ve gone too far to the right.” Having viable Independent candidates would make a difference, “but they don’t have funding or a way to get their names out.”
Even though neither of them voted for Obama in 2008, they were somewhat pleased with what they perceived as his course correction after the midterm election.
“I think he’s gone more than halfway,” said Wells. “I look at my job, and if they tell me I’m doing something wrong, I’m going to change—I’m not going to keep doing it my way and risk getting fired. I’m going to do what I need to do to keep my job. The voters are his boss.”
“This election was a wake-up call,” said Ayers. “It was ‘do what your constituents want or we’re going to get rid of you.’”
* * *
Twenty-five-year-old Adam Gray lives in Broomfield, Colorado, located between Denver and Boulder. He’s an engineer who works for a small composite technology company that does advanced applications for the aerospace industry with clients including NASA and the Department of Defense.
Like so many young people, he moved to Colorado to attend college and never left. His parents are Republicans, and Gray says he started out as a Republican, voting for George W. Bush and John McCain for president, but then became an Independent. In 2010, he voted for Democrat John Hickenlooper for governor. “I thought when I first started to vote that you had to pick a side, but I got a little older and found myself disappointed with both sides.”
Gray says he is more economically Republican but more socially Democratic. “This whole debt thing scares the hell out of me.... People my age get it. You’re just starting out on your own, you know you can’t spend more than you make. It’s something most people my age can relate to—not overspending your bank account.”
Gray is pro-choice, and believes gays should have the right to marry. “I think those are human rights,” he explains. He watches Fox News, but also likes to check out the websites of CNN and the BBC. Like a lot of young people, he also picks up a lot of his political ideas from talking with his friends.
He doesn’t understand why there should be only two parties in the United States and has some frustration about being a registered Independent because “You don’t really have a voice if you don’t side with one of the two big dogs.”
But he is sick of what he sees going on in Washington. “There’s no real compromise. It’s like this tug-of-war match—it’s not constructive. It’s all a power play.”
Gray has friends who worked on the Obama campaign who now say they are a bit disappointed, and he thinks “the Obama sheen has worn off.” When I ask if he can see himself voting for a Democrat for president, he instantly responds, “Oh, sure,” and says what he is really looking for in a candidate is, “Someone willing to admit their mistakes. I really hate that no one owns up to any mistake they make. I really want someone to be honest, tell it straight, and move forward. Candidates always make the safe pla...
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