ALBANY — The second-largest group of voters in Democrat-dominated New York State isn’t the Republican Party.
That would be those who choose not to join any party, and attracting them has become something of a Holy Grail for Democratic and Republican leaders because they could swing elections in November.
As of June, 5.98 million voters were enrolled in the Democratic Party statewide, compared with 2.64 million Republicans.
However, voters not enrolled in a party, often called "blanks" or independent voters, surpassed Republicans in 2020 and now number 2.74 million. Between November 2020 and June of this year, Democrats gained 200,114 enrolled members, Republicans 14,276 and blanks 257,998.
The blank or lowercase independent voters are not the same as members of the once-active Independence Party, which lost its automatic ballot spot in 2020 after failing to attract 50,000 votes.
On Long Island, Nassau County has 98,976 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans, but 271,599 voters aren’t enrolled in any party. In Suffolk County, Democrats have an edge of 41,772 enrolled voters, but there are 307,090 independent voters.
On Long Island, independents could affect four congressional races that will help determine control of the House of Representatives. In each of the districts:
The 1st Congressional District has 8,159 more Democrats than Republicans, but also 166,642 independents; the 2nd district has 29,875 more Democrats, but 144,925 independents; the 3rd district in Nassau and in Queens has 66,648 more Democrats, but 155,995 independents, and the 4th district has 230,505 Democrats, 155,114 Republicans and 128,926 voters not enrolled in a political party.
The conventional wisdom among leaders of the major political parties has been that independent voters are moderates who have traditionally split between Republican and Democratic candidates depending on the issues. That view also assumed independent voters aren’t as interested or engaged in politics as those in the parties’ base.
But some observers believe the conventional wisdom may be wrong.
“I don’t think that model is helpful in understanding who independents are,” said Omar H. Ali, dean and professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is co-author of “The Independent Voter,” which found that voters who consider themselves independent have grown to 40% to 50% of the national electorate. The research found that independent voters are fed up with partisan politics and that independents have been and remain a catalyst for transforming American democracy.
“Independent voters, ideologically speaking, run across the entire spectrum,” Ali told Newsday. For example, while Republicans court conservatives and Democrats court liberals, many independents think of themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and resent when the major parties polarize into gridlock.
“There is sort of a mass expression of the discontent of how politics are carried out,” Ali said.
He said independents see that the major parties fight over policy “like cats and dogs, but when it comes to process, they lock arms … the two major parties have substituted themselves for government and are writing the laws and regulations to keep them in power.”
Independent voters, however, are more concerned about the political process, he said.
Fight over policy differences “assures the prime voters, the ones who consistently come out, but it doesn’t help our democracy,” Ali said. “We shouldn’t attack each other, but figure out ways we can solve our problems without partisanship.”
Recently, this discontent with the political status quo was seen when Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by courting and winning over independents. In 2016, however, independents — including former Obama supporters — were critical to Republican Donald Trump's winning the White House, Ali said.
Independent voters have shown to be motivated by conflict and severe challenges, said Gerald Benjamin, professor emeritus of political science at the SUNY New Paltz who has studied New York politics for decades. Today, motivating issues could include combating rising crime, which New York Republicans espouse, and protecting abortion rights, which New York Democrats have made a central campaign issue.
But the makeup of independent voters makes a prediction of which candidates will win them over a difficult task.
“They are not a party and they don’t have any cohesion,” Benjamin said.
Still, leaders of both major political parties are working hard to attract the independent vote, which could play into a Democratic landslide or a historic Republican upset in November.
“We feel very strongly that independents in this state are breaking very much to the Republican cause,” New York Republican chairman Nick Langworthy told Newsday, citing concern over crime.
He said Republicans are bolstering that point with “pocketbook issues” such as inflation and taxes, and trying to paint Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul as simply an extension of the three-term Cuomo administration. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned a year ago amid sexual harassment allegations.
“I think this is the best chance we’ve had to capture that vote in a few generations,” Langworthy said.
Democrats, however, also say they have the edge with independent voters.
“Independents tend to be individuals who choose not to focus on loyalty to any one party, but more on what they feel is important to them,” state Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said.
He said many independent voters feel threatened by conservative actions, such the U.S. Supreme Court decisions this summer that overturned the nationwide right to abortion and struck down New York’s restrictive law for obtaining licenses to carry concealed firearms.
“Even independent voters are just shaking their heads," Jacobs said. "The Republicans have seemingly eliminated themselves from consideration.”
Veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said he’s still unsure which major party candidates will capture the independent vote in November for state legislative races, congressional races and possibly the governor’s race.
“Political scientists, we used to think independents were simply a step toward Republicanism,” Sheinkopf told Newsday. “But that may not be the case. We have a permanent class of unaffiliated voters. The question is, ‘Will they turn out?’ ”
“Will abortion turn them out? Will crime turn them out? We don’t know yet,” Sheinkopf said, while adding: “Independents could actually make the difference.”