If ever there were a chance to introduce a legitimate third party into the American political system, Gallup’s new survey says the time might be now. “At least four in 10 U.S. adults identified as political independents” in a new poll about party loyalty. Gallup blamed anger over Washington gridlock for the exodus, which sees 29% of Americans still calling themselves Democrats and 26% identifying as Republicans. The Democrat share, incidentally, is the lowest it’s been since Gallup started asking this question 65 years ago.
“Americans’ attachment to the two major political parties in recent years is arguably the weakest Gallup has recorded since the advent of its polls,” said a company spokesman. “The percentage of adults identifying as political independents has recently reached levels never seen before.”
According to the pollsters, this lack of party loyalty could make “candidate-specific factors” a bigger issue in the 2016 election than they have been in the past.
That’s a nice story, but history suggests otherwise. Once you cut away the independents who “lean” Republican and those who “lean” Democrat, you’re left with only 12% who consider themselves completely unaffiliated. As the Washington Post pointed out, the vast majority of these “leaning” independents voted for their preferred party’s candidate in 2012.
Still, there is very clearly something happening on both sides of the American electorate. Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz, are trouncing traditional Republicans as we head into the primaries. On the left, Senator Bernie Sanders is gaining ground on a suddenly-vulnerable Hillary Clinton despite the DNC’s best efforts to crown their queen. These are the fruits of a population that is sick to death of politics-as-usual. If many Americans resist identifying with the party of Barack Obama or the party of Mitch McConnell, well, is anyone surprised?
That massive pool of independents isn’t waiting to be wooed by one party’s candidate or the other’s; most of them, in many respects, are trying to pull their respective party further away from the center. Is gridlock really the problem, as Gallup suggests? Or is it actually endless, soul-numbing compromise that has Americans embarrassed to label themselves? How can you “identify” with a political party that doesn’t stand for anything? Trump and Sanders have energized their respective fans how? By promising to roll up their sleeves and bring back that good old fashioned bipartisan spirit to D.C.? Not really.
Whatever all of this means, one thing is certain: it’s not good news for a certain former secretary of state. In a year where voters are looking to shake things up, it’s hard to see how Establishment Fixture Numero Uno can possibly win.