Steve Rattner’s Morning Joe Charts: The Rise of Independents

The presidential primary season is all but over – one of the shortest in memory – and that’s one of the challenges that our democracy is facing. Our elected leaders are being chosen by a smaller and smaller share of our population.

For starters, the share of Americans who identify themselves as members of a political party has been steadily dropping, a sign of disenchantment on the part of many Americans with both parties. Two decades ago, Americans were almost evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Today, independents account for 45% of Americans, while the balance are still evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In that context, just 27% of Americans think the political system is working well or very well.

Self-identified independents are particularly numerous in the 19 states that do not permit party registration. But even in 22 of the 32 states (including the District of Columbia) that permit party registration the share of independents has been rising. There are now 12 states where independents make up a plurality of registered voters, with the biggest jumps occurring in Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and North Carolina.

Looking at those Americans who are registered in one of the two parties, for the most part, the blue states have gotten bluer while the red states have gotten redder, further evidence of our growing partisan divide. Some exceptions: Democrats have gained ground in two red states (Utah and Kansas) while Republicans have gained ground in five blue states (Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island). Adding that up, 83% of Americans who are able to register in a party (excluding Arkansas) are in states that have moved deeper into their side of the partisan divide.

This is particularly important because elections are increasingly decided in a small number of places. In 2000, the presidential voting in nearly half of American counties was decided by less than 20 percentage points. By 2020, that percentage had dropped to 22% of all counties. In 2020, the majority of counties gave one candidate more than 70% of the vote. This reflects geographic polarization that affects all elections, from city councils to the Senate. Thus, the choice of nominee increasingly determined the outcome of the general election vote. In the House of Representatives, for example, the number of competitive seats dropped to 90 in 2022 from 160 in 2000, according to the Cook Political Report.

The increasing number of independents has meant that more and more Americans are shut out of the primary process and therefore, often lose their voice. That figure has grown to 27 million in 2024, from 15 million in 2004.

Even those who can vote in primaries most often don’t turn out, concentrating the outcome in the hands of a still smaller fraction of Americans. While turn out in general elections has risen modestly, to 47% in 2022 from 38% in 1998, the percentage of Americans voting in the primaries has remained roughly flat, at around 20%. In 2022, federal primary turnout was just 3% in New York and Virginia.

Some changes could help modestly: Open primaries attract a higher percentage of voters than closed primaries. Consolidating federal and local primaries would also help. But more fundamentally, the two parties both need to create bigger tents to attract more members.