During times of intense political interest, which seems to be all of the time in recent years, states are commonly identified by color. Some are called Blue States. We Californians live in one. Others are called Red States, like Arizona. States that are identified as “blue” are those in which a majority of registered voters have declared themselves to be Democrats. Those that are “red” have a majority of Republicans.
Currently, there is a third option. A number of states, like Nevada and Missouri, have an approximately equal number of Democrats and Republicans. These states are often referred to as “purple,” the space on a color wheel where blue and red run together in equal proportions. During the run-up to an election, they are also referred to as “swing” states, meaning that the vote could go either way, Republican or Democrat.
Recent analysis of voter registrations, political polls, and — especially — pre-registrations indicate that we may someday have a fourth option. And, “someday” may arrive sooner than most of us expect. The reason for this new political orientation seems to be a dissatisfaction with either of the major political parties and a lack of attraction to the existing alternative parties, like the American Independent Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Peace and Freedom Party.
The Lilac State
I chose the color lilac to symbolize the fourth alternative. Although no such animal currently exists, the Lilac State will have some red and some blue, but mostly it will have voters who register as independents, not showing a preference for either of the two major parties. And lilac is a pale pinkish purple color tinged with blue.
I think that Lilac States are inevitable because many people, and I count myself among them, are dissatisfied with the partisan system that has divided our country into two warring camps. The most destructive battles are fought on social media, traditional media, and mailboxes. The favored weapon is the “negative” ad.
A candidate who says that we need to find a way to fund Social Security may be portrayed as the person who threatens the security of senior citizens. Or the candidate who notes that children in California schools are falling behind students in other states may be accused of being an enemy of education in the Golden State. Hucksters sell these types of negative advertising, claiming that most people don’t pay much attention to the issues and can be swayed by such sound bytes.
Unfortunately, but not in all cases, they seem to have been right, at least in the past. Whether the truism holds in the future is uncertain because of a new orientation, especially by younger and newer voters, as well as a growing abhorrence among people of the idea of putting party before country.
Citing analysis of the 2016 elections by the Pew Research Center, National Public Radio (NPR) reported, “Self-identified Democrats accounted for 32 percent of the electorate, Republicans 23 percent.” But, the big story was the surge in independent voters. According to NPR, “Turned off by the partisan wars in Washington, 39 percent of voters now (2016) identify themselves as independent rather than affiliated with one of the two major political parties.”
The Gallup Organization followed up on this observation in 2017, stating, “Americans’ frustration with the way the government is working and their generally low favorable ratings of the two major parties are two reasons why more identify politically as independents.”
Trends in party affiliation
Using Gallup polling results and looking over the past 30 years of politics in the U.S., we can recognize two distinct trends. First, since 1988, the Republican Party has never claimed more adherents than the Democratic Party during a presidential- election year, although the two parties were essentially tied in 2004. Second, independents outnumbered both parties every year since 1991, with the following exception: in 2004, both Republicans and Democrats outnumbered independents; in 2006, Democrats and independents were roughly even, but both outnumbered Republicans; and in 2008, Democrats outnumbered Republicans with a 9-point advantage and a one-point advantage over independents.
Since 2008, the percentage of independent voters has left both major political parties in the dust, having a double-digit advantage at times. Gallup summarized its results as follows: “Last year (2017), 42 percent of Americans, on average, identified as political independents, erasing the decline to 39 percent seen in the 2016 presidential election year.”
The generational divide
Earlier this year, Pew Research Center asked adults of various ages for their assessment of candidates running for Congress in their districts in the last several elections. Among those who were 65 or older, 23 percent said that the candidates were very bad or somewhat bad. Among those between 50 and 64, 30 percent rated them on the bad side. Those between 30 and 49 were roughly the same, except that fewer rated the candidates as somewhat good or very good.
But, among those between 18 and 29, half (50 percent) rated the candidates as very bad or somewhat bad. The report clarified, “The age gap is partly the result of younger people being less likely to identify as partisans, but a gap remains even when that is taken into account.”
Another Pew report, released in March revealed the same gap when sorted by generational cohorts. Only 27 percent of those who are categorized as the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) were registered as independent voters. Thirty-two percent of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were independents. Among Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), 39 percent were independents. And, among Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), 44 percent were registered as being independent.
This gap is even apparent when we look at potential voters who have preregistered. According to the State of California’s Report of Registration 2018, as of May, 132,529 young people (ages 16 and 17) had preregistered to vote when they become 18. The percentages broke down as follows: Democratic, 37.4 percent; Republican, 9.4 percent; No Party Preference, 44.7 percent; and Other, 8.4 percent. If California is a bellwether for other states, as Earl Babbie wrote in his introduction to California’s Social Problems, a book that Chuck Hohm and I published in 2002, surely some currently purple states will pale to lilac.
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Jim Glynn, professor emeritus of sociology, may be contacted at email@example.com.