All eyes on Washington's independent voters
Even though Washington state has gone Democratic for every governor since 1980 and every presidential candidate since 1988, more Washingtonians have considered themselves Independents than either Democrats or Republicans, writes regional pollster H. Stuart Elway.
Special to The Times
A RECENT Pew Foundation study found that 40 percent of Americans consider themselves Independents, more than either Democrats or Republicans. This was big news nationally, but it is old hat here in Washington state.
Even though Washington has gone Democratic for every governor since 1980 and every presidential candidate since 1988, for at least a generation more Washingtonians have considered themselves "Independents" than either Democrats or Republicans. At least most of the time.
Unlike in most states, voters here do not have to register by party. Nearly every month for the past 20 years, The Elway Poll has asked Washington voters what they would choose to do if they registered by party. The 20-year average is: 33 percent would register as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 39 percent as Independents.
Because voters can choose their identification anew every time the question is asked, party affiliation tends to fluctuate. Since 1992, Democratic identification has been as high as 46 percent and as low as 24 percent; Republican identification has ranged from 41 percent to 21 percent, and Independents from 49 percent to 22 percent.
Party identification, considered a stable force in American politics, is more of a variable indicator of public mood here. What has it been indicating lately?
The Bush years were good for the Democratic Party in Washington. The parties were even in 2000 at about 30 percent each, with 39 percent Independents. By 2008, though, 40 percent of Washington voters said they were Democrats, compared with 28 percent Republicans and 31 percent Independents. (I am using a three-month average here to smooth out the variation.)
Both parties have receded since President Obama's election. The average for 2011 was 33 percent Democrats, 24 percent Republicans and 42 percent Independents.
Although Washington tends to go blue, party identification has varied according to the election calendar. Since 2000, Independents have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans during non-election (odd-numbered) years, except for 2007, when voters were tired of George W. Bush.
The pattern changes as the election nears. In the three months leading up to each election since 2004, the number of people considering themselves Democrats has shot to around 40 percent while Independents have receded to around 30 percent.
The fluctuation is mainly between Democrats and Independents. The number of Republicans has been in slow decline, from 31 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2011.
How have Washington voters been identifying lately? Since the first of this year, Republicans have gained, while both Democrats and Independents have lost. The three-month average last December was 42 percent Independents, 36 percent Democrats and 22 percent Republicans. As of last week, it was 37 percent Independents, 34 percent Democrats and 29 percent Republicans.
If this pattern were to hold, it would resemble the 2000-2002 period when Republicans took control of the state senate and split the state House of Representatives — the last time they did either.
If most Washington Independents follow the pattern of the past eight years and turn into Democrats at voting time, we'll be a blue state again. If they revert to the pattern of earlier years and remain Independents right up to the election, they will give Republicans a fighting chance to win for the first time in a generation.H. Stuart Elway is president of Elway Research, Inc. and publisher of the Elway Poll. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Independents at the University of Washington.