The Jobless Effect: Unemployment Is Fueling Independent Voters' Anger

Voting polling place
Voting polling place

It's an axiom of current political analysis that Independent voters have become an increasingly important, influential and powerful voting bloc. That this power is fueled by dissatisfaction coupled with the fact that the ranks of Independents are growing should trouble all lawmakers, especially Democrats, who currently have a majority in Congress.

And one look at the unemployment rate among independents makes it easy to understand their growing discontent. In an analysis prepared for DailyFinance, Gallup monthly polls reveal that in the last six months, the jobless rate among Independent voters is higher than for both Democrats and Republicans at least 50% of the time. In March, for instance, when it was at the highest level, a Gallup poll revealed that 12% of Independents were without a job, compared with 11% of Democrats and 6.5% of Republicans.

"The Independent voter anxiety started with TARP money for big banks, then shifted to unease over the stimulus package," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report. "Then, when the Administration completely ignored their increased anxiety over the economy and jobs and instead chose to focus on health care -- that was the end of it for Independent voters."

Frustrated With Both Parties

According to the latest Gallup poll, 40% of Americans identify themselves as Independent, a higher percentage then either Democrat (30%) or Republican (26%). That's up from 33% Independent, 29% Republican and 37% Democrat at the same time last year. Clearly, both parties have lost affiliates, though the Democrats appear to have lost more than the Republicans.

Duffy says the ranks of Independent voters are increasing because of the frustration that Americans feel with both parties. On one side, the Democrats' tin ear to their worries rankles Independents, and the Dems' inability to clean up the economic situation puts them in a vulnerable situation. A recent Gallup poll shows that Independents favor the GOP in House races by 12%.

And on the other side, many Independents are unhappy with the Republicans' opposition to certain legislation, including bills that place curbs on risk-taking at large banks that were at the center of the financial and economic crisis. Also, more Independents side with Democrats in supporting an extension to unemployment benefits -- in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 59% of Independents support it along with 80% of Democrats, compared to 43% Republicans.

While there haven't been any surveys that explore whether significant numbers of newly Independent voters are coming from the ranks of the jobless, the ABC/Post poll implies a clear link between high unemployment among Independents and their increasing discontent.

"People in the Middle"

That's certainly a problem, given that Independents are the only undecided voters in today's polarized political world, where Republicans and Democrats aren't likely to switch sides.

"Independents are increasingly important to each party, because each party can count on their core supporters not to leave them," says Bruce Wallin, a political science professor at Northeastern University. "The people in the middle are indeed undecided, even if they lean one way or the other."

The last presidential election and Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts have underscored the fact that Independents hold the key to winning. To have so much dissatisfaction among such a powerful bloc of voters is risky.

"There is a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in this pivotal bloc -- a feeling that you have no say in what's going on in the country," says Wallin.

Turning Against Obama

Many political scientists point to these same frustrations as a factor in the rise of the Tea Party Movement. Winston Group conducted three studies from December 2009 through February 2010 and found that while 57% of the Tea Partiers are indeed Republicans, 28% consider themselves Independent, and 13% consider themselves Democrats. The group found that the top concerns in the Tea Party are the economy and jobs.

Northeastern's Wallin says the last time the country saw a spike in Independent voters was in the 1960s and 1970s when anti-government feelings stemmed from the Vietnam war and the oil crisis.

While Independents played a crucial role in voting President Obama into office in 2008, they have also seen the largest increase in ranks of people disappointed with his performance. In a Gallup poll released July 7, 38% of independents approved of the job Obama is doing as president, the first time independent approval of Obama has dropped below 40%. It was 18 percentage points lower than the 56% around the same time last year.

Poll after poll shows that almost all issues pale when compared to the anxiety that Americans, especially Independents, face over jobs. And for years, the same polls have shown that Americans vote with their pocketbooks. Given how thin the pocketbooks of this key voting block are, lawmakers need to tackle unemployment now. Democrats need to think big, and Republicans might see their "no" votes come back to bite them in the coming November elections.

Editor's Note:
This is the second part of "The Jobless Effect" series. Also see:

"Is the Real Unemployment Rate 16.5%, 22$ or. . .?"

"Illegal Immigration and Unemployment: A Toxic Mix"