As the country inches closer to a presidential election, the ranks of the alienated American voter appear to be growing. A survey last week by the Pew Center finds that 38-percent of those polled label themselves ‘independent,’ not ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican.’ That’s the largest number since the Great Depression.
As part of our "Election 2012" coverage, WKAR's Mark Bashore spoke with a long-time Michigan policy insider about the study.
MARK BASHORE: Dr. Doug Roberts directs the MSU Institute of Public Policy and Social Research. The former State Treasurer says the growing percentage of ‘independents’ is simply the latest number reflecting voter frustration with America’s two-party status quo. Between now and November, he says the country should expect both presidential candidates to appeal more to these independent voters.
DR. DOUG ROBERTS: I think you’ll see both candidates at the national level try to walk different tightropes, meaning they want to come to the middle. They want to try to capture that independent vote because at the moment it appears that the independent vote will, in fact, select the president. On the other hand, they don’t want to irritate their base because they need the base in order to get the (necessary) number of votes. So it’s difficult for both candidates.
BASHORE: Do you think the center could continue to grow?
ROBERTS: I don’t know. They really don’t have a home. And when you don’t have a home, sooner or later you end up siding with one side or the other on some issue that becomes most important to you even if it’s at the expense of other issues that are important to you. So I would be surprised to see the center continue to get much bigger. It’s a pretty big number.
BASHORE: What if the trend were to continue? Could it reach a tipping point when it begins changing politics or changing elections in the United States?
ROBERTS: The answer, in my opinion, is (no), not under the current format. What I mean by that is let’s take the primary process. At the moment, the primary process in most states, and Michigan is no different, the Republicans select a candidate and the Democrats select a candidate and those two candidates run against each other. But there are some states in which the top two candidates in the primary run against each other, (even if) those two candidates are Republicans or whether those top two candidates are Democrats. The middle becomes much more important because the person who is not either far right or far left may have a chance of picking up the middle. So unless we change the process, I’m not sure where the middle can go.
BASHORE: There are other parties that get candidates on the Presidential ballot: Libertarian, Natural Law, (the) Green Party. Do you see these parties gaining members with the alienation from the Dems and the GOP?
ROBERTS: The answer is they could, but in my personal opinion, they will often end up electing a person they clearly do not want and all they become is spoilers. And they take away votes that might have otherwise gone to another candidate who the group may have preferred over the ultimate winner.
BASHORE: One of the findings of the survey is the growing gap between how Republicans and Democrats view the role or the scope of government in general. What do you take from that?
ROBERTS: I really believe---although the survey doesn’t say it---that people are talking about the size and scope of the federal government. I’m not sure why the divide would (exist) if it were talking about the size and scope of state government and, in particular, local government.
What we’re really dealing with is how much federal government should be used for--for lack of a better term-- (as) a safety net. And there are an awful lot of individuals on the Democratic side that believe that’s clearly a fundamental role of government. And (a) number of individuals on the Republican side is saying that it’s not that important. That makes it very difficult to come to some sort of middle ground. So, I wish I could be more optimistic, but I do think that’s going to be a major issue.
BASHORE: Any other thoughts on what lies between now and November?
ROBERTS: The election, not just in Michigan but nationwide, it seems to me, has changed, literally, in just the last week. Two things have happened nationwide that will affect the national vote. One is the issue of the economy and the number of jobs. And two is the issue of the recall in Wisconsin. All of these things mean that, in my opinion, the election is going to be very close.
I also think that when it gets close I think it’s going to get very nasty and to put it very bluntly---which is absolutely consistent with what we were been talking about---extremely partisan. And when it’s all said and done, whoever the people of this country elect, I do think that that person is going to have a very difficult time bringing people back together to try to solve our problems because we’re going to have a very divisive election.