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The Color Purple: Why more voters are becoming nonpartisans

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Election 2018
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A hand arranging "I voted" stickers on a table

If 32-year-old Jim Jobin’s voting record took the form of a painting, it would be speckled with blue and red.

The Las Vegas resident cast a ballot for Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. But he pivoted to the Democratic side for the next three cycles, voting for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Closer to home, his political preference has veered more toward red, the color informally associated with the GOP. Jobin has supported Gov. Brian Sandoval, saying the Republican “won” his heart after bucking party politics and expanding Medicaid in 2012.

“That was a moment of putting Nevada first,” Jobin, a psychotherapist and addiction specialist, said. “After that point, I realized he is very fair-minded, and I started appreciating a lot of the policies he took.”

Jobin’s rationale for backing Sandoval exemplifies his approach to politics: He wants to be persuadable. Give him a good policy argument — or proof of a reasonable mindset — and political candidates might capture his vote, regardless of the partisan label next to their name on the ballot. Party designation doesn’t appeal to Jobin. He’d like to see more people avoid the political echo chamber and do their own thinking rather than parrot traditional party lines.

Jobin figures he should lead by example — or, in his words, “be the change I want to see” — so he proudly identifies as a nonpartisan voter.

That change already is well underway, at least according to voter registration records. Nonpartisan registration has increased steadily in Nevada during the past decade, with about 1 in 5 voters identifying as such this year. In fact, the growth of nonpartisan registration outpaced all other subcategories of voters last month. Active nonpartisan registered voters increased by 2.7 percent in September, the secretary of state’s office reported last week, while Democratic and Republican registration increased by 1.5 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively.

It’s a voter bloc that could influence tight races in the upcoming midterm election, caveated of course by the variable that affects all elections: turnout. So while Democrats and Republicans seek to rev up their respective bases, they’re also trying to woo voters like Jobin who prefer not to align themselves with any particular party.

From his perspective, though, both parties could step up their game.

“I’d like to believe we’re going to be a deciding force,” he said of his fellow nonpartisans. “I don’t hold my breath for it. I don’t know that either party tries very hard to win us over. I never feel like anyone is bringing good, persuasive arguments.”

By the numbers

More than 328,000 Nevada residents have registered as nonpartisans. They represent 21.6 percent of active registered voters, the third largest group behind Democrats (38.3 percent) and Republicans (33.7 percent) in the Silver State. Other minority parties make up the remaining percent.

While Democrat and Republican registration has mostly fallen over the last decade, nonpartisan registration in Nevada has steadily climbed during that same period. In October 2008, only 15.2 percent of the state’s active registered voters identified as nonpartisans.

The increase mirrors national trends. A recent Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans consider themselves non-major party voters, although many lean Democratic or Republican when casting ballots.

The percentage of people who identify as “independents” — non-major party voters — tends to be higher than those who are registered as such, said Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org, a national strategy and organizing center for nonaligned voters. That’s partially because voter registration laws differ by state. (In Nevada, voters can register as “nonpartisan,” but that also means they can’t participate in primary elections.)

So what’s driving people to shy away from calling themselves Democrats or Republicans?

Salit said the reasons vary by person but fall into some general themes: Some people don’t think the two major parties represent them anymore. Others want to vote for the person rather than the party. And a chunk of voters are fed up with the current political climate and believe the Democratic and Republican parties put their own interests ahead of their constituents’ needs.

"We’re kind of in that shift from a rebellion inside the parties to a pathway out,” she said.

If age is any indication, the growth of nonpartisan affiliation will continue. In Nevada, nonpartisans account for 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-old active registered voters. That’s higher than Republicans (22 percent) but lower than Democrats (39 percent) for that same age group. Twenty-six percent of active registered voters in the slightly older age bracket — 25- to 34-year-olds — are nonpartisans, according to the Nevada secretary of state’s office.

A survey conducted this spring by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics showed similar political attitudes. Thirty-seven percent of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they consider themselves unaffiliated with the two major political parties, compared with 40 percent who described themselves as Democrats and 21 percent who called themselves Republicans.

Younger Americans haven’t lived through cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement or Reagan revolution, which cleaved people to particular political parties, Salit said, explaining why more of them may be identifying as nonpartisan.

The trend, however, could also signal a new era for the nation’s political system.

“I think we’re entering into a period of a transfer of power from the parties to the voters,” she said. “Whether that ends up breaking up the quote-unquote two-party system, that’s a little hard to say.”

Dan Lee, an assistant professor of political science at UNLV, isn’t so sure there’s a dramatic political shift afoot. He suspects the move toward nonpartisan identification or registration may be more symptomatic of people’s growing desire for political privacy.

In other words, nonpartisan affiliation may be viewed as a way to prevent tense Thanksgiving dinners or awkward happy hours when conversation turns to President Donald Trump, his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, or other big names in America’s cast of politicians and their sometimes-divisive policy stances.

“People don’t want to admit being on either side, especially if you have a pretty diverse set of friends,” he said. “You kind of just want to avoid that confrontation.”

Lee describes many of these people as “closet partisans,” who wear the nonpartisan label but lean heavily toward the Republican or Democratic parties.

The people behind nonpartisan registration

Former Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner admits she may fit the description of a closet partisan.

Elected as a Republican to the Assembly in 1974, Wagner remained a GOP member for the duration of her public service. But the tea party movement proved to be too much for the moderate Republican who is socially liberal. She changed her voter registration to nonpartisan in 2014.

“The fights over the platform were just too much,” she said, referring to issue positions adopted at conventions. “I thought, ‘I don’t need this.’ I think that’s why I’m a nonpartisan.”

Since her registration switch, Wagner said she has voted for more Democrats than Republicans. In fact, she recently hosted a gathering on the deck of her Reno home, attended by Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen and roughly a dozen women. The first-term Democratic congresswoman, who’s running for Senate against incumbent Republican Dean Heller, spent an hour fielding questions from the group, she said. But when one of Rosen’s campaign staffers asked Wagner whether she was attending an upcoming Democrats’ dinner event in Reno, she demurred.

The 78-year-old said it’s just not her thing.

“I don’t really like political parties much,” Wagner said.

She’s not the only Nevada politician to drop party affiliation.

Former Republican Assemblyman Pat Hickey changed his registration to nonpartisan in December — tired of what he called “increasingly combative politics” on both sides of the aisle.

Hickey, an ardent supporter of Sandoval, said he longs for the days when compromise was an embraced political quality.

“My core values politically have not changed; my lack of party affiliation has,” he said, adding that he intends to vote for whomever he thinks will do the best job representing Nevadans. “Does that mean I’m still going to vote for a number of Republicans? Yes.”

Mike Yoder, a Las Vegas resident who owns a technology company, echoed similar frustrations about both major parties. He registered as a nonpartisan about four years ago. Yoder said he “reluctantly” voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, only because he couldn’t fathom the thought of Trump as president.

Now, more than a year and a half into a Trump presidency, Yoder rattled off a list of grievances with the current administration, including the trade war, the way he has handled international relationships and his efforts to dismantle rather than merely reform the Affordable Care Act.

Despite his nonpartisan label, Yoder said Democrats most likely will earn his votes in the midterm election.

“I will probably vote a Democratic Party line more as a protest vote to the agenda of the current Republican movement,” Yoder, 50, said. “I want to send a clear message that I feel that is damaging to the future of the country.”

With the election still a month away, not all nonpartisans interviewed by The Nevada Independent for this piece had decided how they would vote. But more than half said they were favoring Democratic candidates, and for some, the reason was tied to ensuring checks and balances in the system rather than an endorsement of a particular person.

“There’s too much leaning one way or leaning the other, which I don’t think is good for our country,” said Budd Milazzo, a 58-year-old nonpartisan who lives in Carson City.

Landin Ryan, who lives in Henderson, said he dislikes the education plan put forward by Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, and he is not happy with Heller’s health-care votes in the U.S. Senate. While he’s leaning blue this cycle, the 36-year-old said he doesn’t have strong feelings about the Democratic candidates in the state’s two biggest races — Steve Sisolak for governor and Rosen for Senate.

“I’m not a huge fan of (Rosen) just because her record is so short,” he said. “She hasn’t done anything that I’ve felt has been incredibly great or incredibly bad.”

In a sense, nonpartisans are stuck with whatever candidates emerge victorious in the primaries. Nevada is one of several states that has a closed primary system, meaning only registered partisans can vote in primaries or presidential caucuses. The set-up irks some nonpartisans.

“There is a movement to address these kind of inequities, as they affect independent voters,” Salit said.

Some nonpartisans have taken the matter into their own hands. Several told The Nevada Independent they sometimes adopt partisan registration ahead of a primary, simply to cast a ballot for whatever candidate or party most appeals to them at that time. Afterward, they switch their registration back to nonpartisan before the general election.

Others say the benefits of nonpartisan registration outweigh that negative.

“I don’t have to explain myself to people on either side,” Kim Fiore, 50, said. “I could just be free. I liked that sense of freedom even though it meant giving up that voice in primary elections.”

Fiore, a lifelong Nevada resident, said the hostile political climate has been brewing for years. She decided it was better to remove herself from that battle and register as a nonpartisan. In recent years, social issues have replaced fiscal issues as her top concern.

“I think we’ve lost our sense of honor and civility and good behavior,” she said. “I think that needs to come back first before we can fix any monetary issues.”

Fiore hasn’t considered switching her registration to Democrat or Republican to vote in the primaries.

“I just feel it’s too much trouble to bother,” she said. “I’m OK with making the final decision.”

Outreach efforts targeting nonpartisans

The importance of the nonpartisan vote isn’t lost on the major parties. If most nonpartisans lean in one direction, they could be the deciding factor in tight races.

And Nevada isn’t short on competitive races this cycle. Recent polls show Sisolak and Laxalt locked in a close battle for the governorship. The Senate race between Heller and Rosen appears similarly neck and neck.

Helen Kalla, the communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, said operatives are “fighting for every vote across the state,” including with nonpartisans.

“We are talking to registered non-partisans via calling, texting, and canvassing and encouraging them to get out and vote for Democrats,” she wrote in a statement. “When we encounter an undecided voter on the doors, we’re able to have an effective conversation with that voter by focusing on listening to the issues he or she cares about and connecting those concerns back to our candidates’ positions on those issues.”

Nonpartisans are on Republicans’ radar, too, but not in quite the same way. Republican officials said they consider nonpartisan registration as more of a data point than anything else.

“Looking at voters simply based on party registration is kind of a 20th century way to look at it,” said Dan Coats, the Nevada state director for the Republican National Committee.

Instead, the Republicans use a “voter scores program” that combs through several thousand public and consumer data points — which includes everything from what kind of car voters drive to whether they practice yoga — to form a portrait of each person. Ultimately, the data can predict whether voters are likely to support a Democratic or Republican candidate as well as predict their propensity to cast a ballot in an election, he said.

“We then deploy our neighborhood teams and volunteers across the state to go contact them via door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, whatever it may be,” he said. “We have very, very laser-focused targeting.”

Republicans say targeting voters simply based on registration records isn’t an effective or efficient way to spread their message and capture votes. They credit their data-analytics program, into which the GOP has poured several hundred million dollars, with helping find and turn out Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential election. (Support from urban voters, however, propelled Clinton to victory in Nevada.)

What this looks like in a practical sense: Republican volunteers who knock on doors may have a neighborhood map in hand with only certain residences highlighted, including some registered nonpartisans. Those are their targeted voters.

“We may hit a house, skip two houses and then talk to the next voter,” Coats said.

With early voting fast approaching — it begins Oct. 20 — and Election Day not far behind, the clock is ticking for both major parties. And there are surely many voters like Jim Jobin, the psychotherapist and addiction specialist, waiting for that persuasive argument that might tip them over the edge.

For now, Jobin said he’s reading mailers, monitoring social media and staying abreast of campaign developments. He’s searching for candidates who, above all, seem willing to “make the right decision each time” — even if it means straying from their traditional party lanes.

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