Unattached and ready for a party
Unaffiliated voters are both the largest voting bloc and the most difficult group to pinpoint in Eagle County.
Sometimes the title “unaffiliated” or “independent” fits like a glove, other times it’s little more than a box half-heartedly checked for county records.
Wittgenstein once said, “A yardstick does not say that the object to be measured is one yard long.” Similarly, the title “unaffiliated” at times exists as little more than a lofty-minded ideal for someone who tends to vote down the party line in elections.
Naturally, then, it becomes difficult to project where this amorphous, ill-defined group of voters will trend in November. Even finding the hot button issues for these voters is a bit of a challenge.
But it’s worth a shot.
County data on independent voters is anything but conclusive. The most recent calculations show 28 percent of Eagle County voters registered as Democrats, 32 percent Republican, and 40 percent unaffiliated, according to Teak Simonton, Eagle County clerk and recorder.
In comparing current figures to those from 2003, Republicans have seen a 5 percent drop-off, while Democrats picked up two percentage points and “unaffiliated” voters rose by 3 percent.
But are people changing party affiliation, or are those changes caused by people simply moving to and from the Vail Valley?
“We really can’t say for sure,” said Helen Lindow, deputy administrative clerk for Eagle County.
For an additional metric, Lindow offered a “change of parties report.” The data show that in the last five months, 142 people have left the Democratic party, while 286 have left the Republican party.
“But this can really mean anything,” said Lindow. “People may have left the party to join a different one, but those figures also include people who have moved.”
So that’s a dead-end.
The next best thing would be a comprehensive survey of unaffiliated voters in the county. Given the logistics involved with that option, we instead opted for a method bearing the scientific rigor of an informal straw poll: Hanging out in a large parking lot one morning in Avon, asking random shoppers about issues important to them this fall.
Responses ranged from the cagy “No comment,” to a laundry list of policy concerns, including the economy, the war in Iraq, property taxes, health care, education, gas prices, energy policy, and environmental stewardship. More often than not, concerns were coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism as to whether any elected official can make a tangible impact on daily life.
In the past, unaffiliated voters were more or less dismissed as a constituency, said Dr. Norman Provizer, professor of political science at Metro State College in Denver. “Even people who claim they aren’t Democrat or Republican lean one way or the other. Nationally, independent voters used to be around 20 percent of the population,” he said. “More recently, that number has dropped to around 10 percent, but it will go back up with this election.”
Provizer felt “change” would be “the dominant issue for independent voters” this year, and the party that could connect “change” to its policy agenda would have the greater chance of wooing the truly unaffiliated.
“But at the same time, there are all these little ‘hanging chads of politics,’ as I like to call them,” he added. “There are always a number of variables that enter into the picture.”
In other words, nobody really knows for sure which direction most independent voters are facing or what issues carry the greatest resonance, let alone whether Eagle County will trend blue or red this fall.
As expected, discussions with Democrat and Republican party officials revealed a healthy ambition more than a pragmatic analysis of the county, with each party forecasting a victory in just a few months.
The shifty political science behind unaffiliated voters is a bit like predicting the path of a tornado: At some point, it will touch down and change the landscape, but it’s nearly impossible to say when and where it will have the largest impact.
With a political terrain that is anything but easy to assess, few people ” this writer included ” feel comfortable gazing into their crystal ball and making any definitive statements on the political future of Eagle County.
Even those who sling prognostications for a living were reluctant to opine on Eagle County’s political future ” repeated calls to area psychics went unreturned.
As with many facets of American culture, the popular television show, “The Simpsons,” had a telling scene about third parties. Faced with the prospect of choosing between two aliens masquerading as a Republican and Democrat ” each of whom promise enslavement of the human race ” a lone voice in the crowd said, “Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third party candidate!” Kang and Kodos, the alien candidates, said after riotous laughter, “Go ahead … throw your vote away!”
And that has really been the underlying sentiment for many people, particularly with Democrats feeling snakebitten after the 2000 election, where many felt Nader spoiled a Gore presidency.
With polls showing public satisfaction with Congress and the president at its nadir, it stands to reason that 2008 could be a game-changer for third parties.
“One of the beautiful things about the Libertarian party is that we are able to pull the disenfranchised voters from each of the two major parties,” said Andrew Davis, national spokesman for the Libertarian party. “People are fed up with Republicans for runaway spending and their stance on the war, and Democrats are fed up with their party acting as a doormat, and not standing up on issues like FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) or the war.”
Davis said it has been a “banner year” for the party, but tempers his enthusiasm with a dose of reality.
“We do the best we can with the end goal of winning the election. We’re not in it to be a spoiler, we’re in it to win,” he said, noting the historical influence of third parties spearheading the suffrage movement and pushing issues like welfare reform and the Contract with America in the ’90s.
“So even if we fall short of victory this fall, we still hope to get our issues taken up by the two major parties,” he said.
To the left of the Democrats is the Green Party.
And according to Phil Huckelberry, national co-chair of the party, the Greens have been prudent in focusing on certain races.
“We try to put our best candidates up for the highest offices and simultaneously run candidates for small local offices,” he said. “Because if you only have people at the top in national races, you lose your base and the party collapses. But if you only go local, there’s no national awareness, so you really need a comprehensive strategy.”
Huckelberry said the national party existed mainly to allow different local parties to touch base, and the real battles were being fought on the state level.
And it’s here that things get sticky.
“Right now, we’re in a bit of a dust-up,” said Tom Kelly, chair of the Green Party in Arapahoe County. “The national party is planning to speak with [the protest group] Recreate ’68, and we really want to disavow any association with the group,” he said, arguing that such an appearance could tarnish the party’s reputation.
“They’re crazy! Just look at the stuff they put out in the press ” it’s just insane,” he said. “So if they go ahead with it, to say the least we are very disappointed in that and are weighing if we want to continue to support them.”
Kelly said it was a difficult issue because local Green Party candidates could be hurt if the national candidates chose to team up with protest groups.
And, just like the Libertarians, the Greens have realistic expectations heading into the election.
“Of course we hope to get all our candidates elected, but we don’t see that happening this time around,” Kelly said. “We just want to get our ideas out there for the future and bring people into the party. One election is not the end of the movement, and in the future we’ll go up against the major parties. We just want people to understand that we really are a different alternative.”
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