IF SCOTT BROWN were a superhero, he’d be Independent Man. I’m thinking purple bodysuit (a tint halfway between blue and red), a cape, a big sparkly “I” on his chest, and a winsome smile. His powers: conciliation and compromise. His enemies: rigid partisans. His Achilles’ heel: too much time around Republicans turns him red, diluting the potency of his centrism.
For much of the year, Brown’s opponent in the Senate contest, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, has attempted to pull off his mask, trying to expose him as a closet Republican loyalist who can’t be trusted to represent Massachusetts on Capitol Hill. That tack has maybe won her some votes, but its success has been limited, if recent measures of public sentiment are to be believed.
Brown, according to public voter surveys through the spring and summer, is generally well regarded, viewed by many voters as deserving of Independent Man’s mantle. That assessment may infuriate many Democrats, but it’s proved relatively durable ever since Brown promised in his successful 2010 campaign to be an independent voice in Washington.
The degree to which he has actually displayed that independence is certainly up for debate, and Democrats have a long list of issues on which they say Brown has put the Republican Party before his state, including votes against an extension of unemployment benefits and funding for summer jobs for teens; against a measure to raise taxes on millionaires; and for an amendment allowing employers with moral qualms to opt out of requirements — such as one mandating coverage for birth control — included in the new national health care law.
But it’s undeniable that Brown has picked a good moment to sell his message of political autonomy. There has perhaps never been a better time to straddle the partisan equator, to establish a personal brand based less on party and more on style and sensibility. In this, the Age of the Independent Voter, the profile Brown has assumed carries serious currency.
Independent voters have an almost mythical quality in American politics — these wondrous beings, willfully unmoored and unencumbered, roving the lands and swaying elections on their whims. Candidates compete vigorously for their affection, knowing that it can mean the difference between triumph and defeat. Independents’ clout and fickle nature can be exaggerated — some polling indicates there are far fewer true swing voters than many people think — but their growing influence is clear.
KNOWN IN MASSACHUSETTS as “unenrolled” voters, independents have become a larger and larger share of the electorate, both in the state and nationally, according to polling and registration data. Today, nearly 53 percent of Massachusetts voters belong to no political party, the highest proportion in at least 60 years. Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates that there are more independent voters now than at any time over the past 75 years.
Experts on voting offer several explanations. Some voters’ lives are simply too full to give politics much attention, and they aren’t involved enough to identify with a party. Diminishing trust in institutions is another factor in eroding party loyalty, particularly among younger voters, specialists say. And then there’s the growing dysfunction of Washington, the disgust with polarized, party-first politics. Rejecting both Democrats and Republicans can feel like a modest but winnable protest. “They don’t trust the political system,” says journalist Linda Killian, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and author of The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents. “They don’t trust money in politics. They want compromise. They want results. They don’t want partisan yapping.”
The ascent of independents is hardly a surprise to candidates such as Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, and President Obama, each of whom has ridden their influence to office in recent elections. Brown did it, too, in his 2010 victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. For those keeping track at home, that’s two Democrats and two Republicans. And that’s no accident. With less affinity for party, many independents vote the person, not the label. (It’s a safe bet there are voters who cast ballots for all four.)
While independents, by simple arithmetic, are important to both Warren and Brown this November, the two campaigns have somewhat distinct tasks over the final six weeks of the race. Because Democrats still hold a more than 3-to-1 advantage over Republicans in party registration in Massachusetts, Brown needs independents more than Warren does, which is why he’s going to great lengths to promote his bipartisanship and downplay party affiliation, almost to a comical degree. He slipped into August’s Republican National Convention in Tampa only briefly (he is really busy, he explained), and his campaign went into damage-control mode after a Globe reporter spotted him at a hotel restaurant with GOP uber-operative Karl Rove.Continued...