Andrew Riffel pondered the looming choice of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump and asked a simple question.
“Why are these the two we have to choose from?” asked Riffel, a digital design student at Manatee Technical College in Bradenton and someone who refuses to call himself either a Democrat or a Republican.
“I don’t think we should be in a position like we are right now, choosing between the lesser of two evils,” added Joe Griner, who is studying major appliance repair at the Bradenton college and also is officially independent.
Just days before Election Day, interviews with more than 40 independent voters in swing states underscores that the nomination of two deeply unpopular candidates for president is aggravating and reinforcing a growing trend in the country away from the Democratic and Republican parties, which more and more voters see as out of touch with their lives and out of date in a new century.
The number of free agent voters registering as independent or unaffiliated is soaring, while Republican and Democratic numbers flatline.
It’s clear in the way voters see themselves, particularly those 35 and younger, who routinely find that the parties have little meaning or relevance to their lives. Today, the largest bloc of voters 35 and younger — 41 percent — identify as independents, up eight points from 2008.
Thirty-four percent call themselves Democrats, the same as in 2008. And 22 percent call themselves Republicans, down five points from eight years ago, according to Pew Research Center data.
It’s evident in how they register to vote.
Independent registrations have jumped since 2008 by 22.3 percent in states that keep registration data by party. Democrats over that same time increased 2.7 percent and Republicans 3.6 percent, says research compiled by Michelle Diggles, senior political analyst for social policy and politics at Third Way, which promotes governing from the center.
David Hubbard, a student at Manatee Technical College, originally registered as a Republican. It was his family upbringing.
But he found that “The only thing I got from them was a call every few years asking for money.” Eight years ago, he became unaffiliated.
Janae Petitjean, a student at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, also saw political parties as having little meaning. Her Republican mother “said if I registered Democrat she’d kick me out.” Petitjean saw herself in the political middle, though, and she too chose to be unaffiliated.
If the trend continues, Diggles said, the country will have more independent voters than Republicans by 2024 in states that register by party. Independent rolls already have soared by 40 percent since 2008 in Florida, North Carolina and five other states.
There’s no strong reason to identify, let alone register, with a party.
“I don’t think it matters,” Tyler DaSilva of Orlando, a student at Valencia College in that city, said of aligning with a party.
Born more than a century ago, the two parties have grown out of date as machines for organizing like-minded voters or communicating the party sales pitch. Now voters can turn to social media instead.
In the first nine months of this year, for example, 109 million people on Facebook in the U.S. generated 5.3 billion likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election.
While no 2012 data are available, the Facebook numbers were way up from the same period in 2015, when 68 million people generated over 1 billion likes, posts, comments and shares about the election.
And the parties’ most lucrative offerings — jobs, contracts, good fellowship among neighbors — are largely gone.
“There’s no reason to be aligned with a political party,” said Cynthia Plunkett, a marketing specialist from Tampa.
Instead, the independents view parties as controlled by big-money interests and too often engaged in infighting over policy and tactics.
Michele Woodhouse, a medical saleswoman from Raleigh who’s now a Republican but plans to register as unaffiliated, sees too much bickering and not enough compassion for the changing needs of voters. “We sit around and do so much infighting,” she lamented of the local GOP.
Then, she said, officials will emerge from their strategy sessions and tell voters, “I know what’s better for you. That infuriates me.”
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Older unaffiliated voters aren’t surprised. Many stuck with the parties out of loyalty to age-old family ties, and because in many states only party members could vote in primaries. That doesn’t seem as important anymore.
“I watched the Watergate hearings as a kid. I didn’t trust anybody in government after that,” said Daniel McGuire, a waiter from Raleigh, and today’s politics confirm his view.
Especially in an era when people don’t need parties to tell them about issues, and a party’s flaws are there for everyone to see – thanks to the internet.
That’s why, when Aaron Thomas, a teacher from Raleigh, wanted to check on the reports from critics that Clinton had ties to big business, he could do so quickly – and wound up backing independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s earlier rival for the nomination.
Like any threatened institution, the two major parties are struggling to retain their grip on power, if not the very value of their brand.
In the Republican Party, the establishment lined up to deny its nomination to outsider Trump, only to fail time after time through the primaries.
In the Democratic Party, insiders strove to prop up Clinton against the surprisingly strong – and independent-fueled – challenge from insurgent Sanders and his vow to shake up a calcifying political system.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign after leaked emails revealed her behind-the-scenes scorn for Sanders. Her replacement, acting Chairwoman Donna Brazile, is under fire after emails revealed she had leaked a question to Clinton in a primary debate.
The next fight: whether to open more presidential primaries to independents, which helps outsiders such as Sanders or Trump. This year, 15 states had completely open primaries, meaning they did not require voters to choose parties on their registration forms.
The turn away from the parties signals that the long-standing playbook on how to run for the White House – raise lots of money, win endorsements and rely on party loyalty and party officials to get out the vote – isn’t working. New rules have to be written.
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What lies ahead in the 2020 presidential race and beyond is a system for picking presidents that can’t yet be defined.
What won’t get the independent voters in the fold is politics as usual or politics as rigid ideology. Hubbard, the Manatee Tech student, recalled that his biggest reason for leaving the GOP was “the slow infiltration of far-right politics into the mainstream.”
In 2008, he found candidates such as Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, and Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, “seemed to be pushing very divisive agendas . . . that was a disgusting display.
“When the 2012 election rolled around, it looked to be more of the same, only expanded.”
Ask the unaffiliated who seems appealing, and they never mention the usual big political names.
Instead, Tessa Loazer, a North Carolina State University senior, mentioned Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland. The Republican shocked the political establishment by winning in one of the nation’s most Democratic states, and he has consistently refused to back Donald Trump.
Luke Perrin, a sophomore from Hickory, North Carolina, likes Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., another early Trump critic who like Hogan prides himself on nonideological politics and is willing to criticize his party’s ideological wings.
Renegades in both parties have appeal.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was an early, outspoken supporter of Sanders. She resigned as a Democratic National Committee vice chair in February, critical of the party’s decision to hold only six primary debates, a system she saw as rigged in favor of Clinton. Joanna Leeder, a senior from Apex, North Carolina, won’t forget what she saw as political courage.
The one quasi-insider who does draw support is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. People laud her fight for a consumer protection bureau and find her constant tweeting candid and refreshing. “She’s the mirror to Trump on Twitter,” said Alex Hornaday, a freshman from Apex.
“The whole system is going to have to change,” said Duane Pike, an unaffiliated voter and a retiree from Land o' Lakes, Florida.
After all, he said, “once our age group dies off, it’s going to be all no-party.”