Democrats, Republicans losing ground on voter affiliation

You know that Democrats and Republicans have a problem when the question becomes: Which of the two major political parties has turned off more voters since the 2008 elections?  As it turns out, it’s the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean the Republicans have gained:

More than 2.5 million voters have left the Democratic and Republican parties since the 2008 elections, while the number of independent voters continues to grow.

A USA TODAY analysis of state voter registration statistics shows registered Democrats declined in 25 of the 28 states that register voters by party. Republicans dipped in 21 states, while independents increased in 18 states.

That seems unusual, especially in states that require party affiliation.  Usually that requirement relates to access to primary ballots, although not always; only 12 states have closed primaries now.  Under those circumstances, one might expect to see an increase in party affiliation, especially for the party whose primaries are meaningful in the presidential election, as the GOP has right now.  Instead, both parties are losing ground, which USA Today reasonably analyzes as deep dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

In the swing states, though, it’s Democrats who are losing more ground, by more than a 2-1 ratio:

The trend is acute in states that are key to next year’s presidential race. In the eight swing states that register voters by party, Democrats’ registration is down by 800,000 and Republicans’ by 350,000. Independents have gained 325,000.

USA Today calls this part of a “decades-long trend,” which is almost certainly true, and that the trend has given independents more stature in national elections, which is almost certainly not true.  Richard Wold cites Ralph Nader and Ross Perot as examples, but neither won a single electoral vote as an independent, although both had an impact on the outcome of their elections.  George Wallace ran as an independent long before this migration became a trend, and in 1968 Wallace actually carried a few states and won some votes in the Electoral College in the race between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.  Perot self-financed his 1992 and 1996 campaigns and won a lot of popular support, but he didn’t organize independents and centrists in any lasting way; his campaign was more personality driven than a realigning ideological call.  Nader ended up being a fringe candidate even among independents.

The trend seems to parallel the decline of the closed-primary system rather than any particular political migration towards a center, in which people had to declare an affiliation to cast a primary vote, as I mentioned earlier.  That calls into question how closely affiliated most voters have ever felt to one of the two major parties, and this realignment might just demonstrate a bit more accuracy about true political inclinations in the electorate.  In terms of acute enthusiasm, though, the pattern over the last three years disfavors Democrats more than Republicans, at least, making it mildly good news for the GOP.  It’s certainly an opportunity for Republicans to reclaim support lost in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but first they’ll have to stop the bleeding themselves.

Update: After discussing this with Jazz Shaw and Doug Mataconis on Twitter, I probably need to clarify one point a bit.  I’m not arguing that independent voters aren’t important; they clearly are, as the last several elections have shown.  I’m arguing that they don’t make a coherent movement (which is what I thought the USA Today article implied), and I’m not sure that the migration we are shows that there are more independents in practice than we have seen in the past.  I think the migration is a reaction to lessened need for party affiliation, and it might just mean we’re seeing a more honest reflection of the electorate.