Independents now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in Arizona as voters continue to abandon the two major parties.
But that actually could lead to further political polarization on both ends of the political spectrum, at least in the short term.
New figures Monday from the Secretary of State's Office show there are now 1,134,243 people registered to vote who have chosen not to belong to any of the four recognized parties. The other two are the Libertarian and Independent American parties; the Green Party failed to maintain enough voters.
Pollster Earl deBerge said the numbers are no surprise as more and more Arizonans are “disaffected” by the two major parties. He said those who choose not to register with them want a more moderate path.
But deBerge noted independents just don't vote when it really counts: in the primary.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett agreed. He said it's not unusual to have 60-plus percent of people registered with parties actually vote in the primary.
State law allows independents also to vote in either party's primary. Bennett estimated that fewer than 10 percent of them bother to show up for the late-August vote.
It's actually worse than that: Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne put the independent turnout in 2012 at just 7 percent.
So who's left in the party – and who turns out – are those who are the true die-hards.
“As the parties shrink ... moderates move to the center and become independents,” deBerge said. And that is happening with both parties.
“As that happens, there's no doubt there's no doubt that the parties will become more ‘dogmatic’ by virtue of the fact that the people who are left are more dogmatic,” he said.
That's also the contention of pollster and political consultant Bruce Merrill.
“The people that stay in the parties are increasingly going to be more ideological,” he said. “It's the people that are kind of disgusted with what's going on with both the Democratic and Republican sides that leave the party.”
Pollster Michael O'Neil also has watched the trends from the time two decades ago when independents were fewer than 15 percent of the electorate.
“I think it kind of reflects a general disgust in the culture,” he said. “As people are registering to vote, they're saying, ‘I really don't like either of these guys.’”
But O'Neil, while agreeing that that independents do not turn out that the polls, is not sure that the declining numbers of those who identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats will create more extremist politics than what already exists in Arizona.
Bennett, though, said he can foresee the possibility of the disaffected voters leaving the parties – and leaving the parties and the primaries – to the true believers.
More to the point, he noted that the primary becomes the de facto election in the vast majority of legislative districts where one party or the other is so dominant that the other party's candidate really stands no chance in the November general election. So the ultimate winners become the candidates who appealed to those who continue to remain registered with their parties.
That left Bennett, who also is in a crowded Republican primary for governor, to plead for more independent participation in the primaries.
“We encourage a better turnout amongst this very important group in our primary elections,” he said.
There is an alternative to make independents more relevant: A top-two primary, where all candidates run against each other and all voters get to make their choices. Then the top vote-getters face off in the general election, even if it turns out that both are Republicans.
Voters had a chance to create such a system in 2012 but the measure was rejected.
Merrill thinks the problem will resolve itself as older voters – the ones most linked to parties – die off and candidates realize they cannot count on party affiliation to get them elected.