Independent voters are growing in numbers at the expense of Democrats in battleground states most likely to determine this year’s presidential election, a Bloomberg News analysis shows.
The collective total of independents grew by about 443,000 in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina since the 2008 election, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from state election officials.
During the same time, Democrats saw a net decline of about 480,000 in those six states, while Republicans -- boosted in part by a competitive primary earlier this year -- added roughly 38,000 voters in them, the analysis shows.
“Democrats hit the high-water mark for registration in 2008, so it’s natural that they are going to see some drop off,” said Michelle Diggles, a senior policy analyst with the Democratic-leaning Third Way research group in Washington who conducted a similar study earlier this year.
The rise of independent voters has had a major impact on recent election results.
In 2008, President Barack Obama won 52 percent of the independent vote, according to national exit polls, which was one percentage less than his overall total. Senator John McCain of Arizona, his Republican opponent, collected 44 percent of the independent vote -- 2 points less than his overall total. Independents represented 29 percent of the total electorate that year.
In 2006, independents backed Democrats by an 18-percentage-point margin nationwide in House races, handing the party control of the chamber for the first time in 12 years. In 2010, they backed Republicans over Democrats in House races by a 19-point margin, as Republicans regained the chamber’s majority.
Independent voters are growing in numbers because of dissatisfaction with Republicans and Democrats, Diggles said.
“Independents are really just fed up with both parties,” she said. “Most elections are about the center and that’s where the swing vote is going to come from.”
A Bloomberg survey taken June 15-18 showed 50 percent of independents view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 47 percent say that about the Democratic Party.
’Freedom to Pick’
“I just want to be able to have the freedom to pick the right person to do the right things for the country,” said poll participant Kimberly Sullivan, 27, an independent voter who lives in Nashua, New Hampshire.
The registration advantage in the six battleground states reviewed -- all of which Obama won in 2008 -- is split between Democrats and independents. The states account for 69 electoral votes, with 270 needed to win the White House.
Democrats are the top party in Florida, Nevada and North Carolina, while independents hold that position in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. Ohio and Virginia, two other battlegrounds consistently identified by Democratic and Republican strategists, don’t report registration statistics by party identification.
The Bloomberg analysis included both active and inactive voters in the states where that distinction was made in the public data because some states don’t provide such a breakdown and inactive voters can be restored to active status.
The campaigns for Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are already working to register additional voters ahead of November’s election and will spend millions of dollars on the task.
Registration Versus Turnout
Higher voter registration doesn’t necessarily translate to higher turnout. In the 1996 presidential election, registration went up and turnout down, while the opposite happened four years later with higher turnout amid lower registration, according to American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.
The registration statistics also should be treated with some skepticism, the center says, because some states do a better job than others of purging the names of people who have died or moved away.
In Florida, the state is in the process of removing noncitizens from state voter rolls even after the U.S. Justice Department cautioned the program may violate federal law. The state, led by Republican Governor Rick Scott, has removed at least 107 alleged noncitizens from its voting rolls after identifying about 180,000 questionable registrations in its database of 11.2 million voters. State officials asked county election supervisors in April to review a list of 2,700 potential noncitizens and remove ineligible voters.
The state won’t send any additional names to supervisors until it gets access to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s citizenship database, said Chris Cate, spokesman for Florida’s secretary of state office.
Republicans in several states have also pushed for tougher restrictions on voter registration, which Democrats and racial minority groups often characterize as ways of discouraging turnout.
The Republican Party of Iowa last week promoted in a news release the roughly 21,000-person registration advantage its party enjoys in that battleground state among “active” voters -- although independents still outnumber them.
Iowa, as in some other states, breaks down its registered voters by “active” and “inactive” status. Voters can be classified as inactive if a piece of mail has been returned to election officials as undeliverable and for other reasons.
As inactive Democrats have been erased, Republicans this year managed to move ahead with the most active registrations for the first time in six years.
When active and inactive voters are included, the Iowa data shows Republicans have gained about 40,000 registrants since December 2008, while Democrats lost about 70,000.
Obama carried Iowa four years ago, with 54 percent of the vote to McCain’s 44 percent.
New voters, especially among minority and youth populations, helped Obama win the White House four years ago and his re-election effort has started voter registration drives in Hispanic and other neighborhoods in battleground states.