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Kris
April 13th, 2004, 06:33 AM
April 13, 2004

Voters Choosing None of the Above, and Parties Scramble

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

It is a political force measured, in effect, by what is being left out. More and more, when voters in New York are given the chance to select Democrat or Republican, they choose neither. Some register in the Independence Party. Some have earned the political shorthand "blanks," for their lack of a choice.

It is an important if so far subtle shift, one that holds the prospect of broadly altering the political equation in a city and a state with a history of strong party affiliations and often deep divides over issues involving everything from sex education in the schools to the death penalty as a tool of crime fighting.

The changes have already begun to turn conventional political wisdom on its head, as Democrats sound traditionally Republican themes and Republicans often become champions of the left. There was the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, a young Democrat with the ambition to be mayor, pushing for tax cuts. There was Michael Balboni, a Republican state senator from Long Island supporting a raise in the minimum wage. Gov. George E. Pataki fought for gay rights; Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton talked time and again about national security.

"There is no doubt that the hard edges of ideology are diminishing in New York," said Congressman Peter T. King, a Republican of Long Island.

That political dynamic is forcing the two main parties to retool their political strategies as more and more voters are sounding like Anna Rosario of the Inwood section of Manhattan. "I am a registered Democrat," she said one day while shopping in a small neighborhood food shop. Then she added that her vote must be earned: "I vote for whoever I feel is right."

While the national trend has been away from party affiliation and away from adherence to political ideology, political strategists say that more recently, the 2004 presidential campaign has actually polarized the national electorate much more firmly along party lines. The general trend appears to be continuing in state and local politics in New York, though, driven in large measure by demographic shifts that have left many people more loyal to issues than to political parties, political strategists say.

"A large group of the electorate tends to be socially tolerant and more receptive to fiscally conservative methods," said Kieran Mahoney, a Manhattan-based Republican political consultant who helped elect Alfonse M. D'Amato to the United States Senate and Mr. Pataki to three terms as governor. "They don't have a natural home in either party."

The numbers underscore Mr. Mahoney's point. Since 1992, New York voter registration has swelled by about 2.9 million, to 11 million from 8 million, but Democrats, Republicans and Conservatives failed to increase their share of the overall electorate. Instead, more than 1 million new voters chose to register unaffiliated or as Independence Party members during that period, increasing their relative size by 5 percent. (The registration system gives voters a list of parties to choose, and allows them to remain unaffiliated by leaving all blank. Some new voters register with the Independence Party under the impression that they are choosing to be independent.)

The rising tide of unaffiliated and Independence voters is just one measure of New York's gradually shifting political universe. Republican pollsters and political strategists say, for instance, that the shift to the middle, and the dynamics driving it, helped reduce the number of people likely to vote who define themselves as conservative.

In previous decades, Republican strategists say, statewide polls of likely voters showed that those identifying themselves as conservatives outnumbered self-described liberals by two to one. But surveys in the last year or two show that has changed. Now, they say, roughly 27 percent of likely voters describe themselves as conservatives and the same percentage describe themselves as liberals. That is a change they attribute in part to a thinning out of upstate cities, where the Republican Party has historically been strong, and to a departure of white, blue-collar voters in New York City accompanied by a surge in immigration.

Those demographic changes have forced a recalibration for Republicans, such as Mr. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who found it necessary to appeal more broadly on issues that are typically the province of Democrats. Indeed, the shifts have left the Republicans, more so than Democrats, scrambling to rebuild a base of support and a rationale for election. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than on Long Island, which once was a bastion of Republican control but now has Democratic county executives in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and a Democratic majority in the Nassau Legislature.

Republicans are realizing that they no longer can sell themselves along ideological lines. That may have worked in 1992, when a little-known state senator named Pataki defeated a titan of the Democratic Party, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, in part by tagging him as "too liberal for too long." That may have been the ideological campaign's last hurrah in New York.

The need for New York Republicans to chart a more moderate path has many of the state's Republican leaders concerned about the direction of President Bush's re-election campaign, and worried that the Republican National Convention will pull the party even further to the right should the focus be on issues like gay marriage.

"All that stuff makes it appear that the Republican Party is not a party looking to bring new people into the fold," said a Republican strategist who spoke on the condition he not be identified. "If there is a 1992 Pat Buchanan speech from the podium of that convention, that will not only be harmful to Republicans in the Northeast, it would be hurtful to Republicans nationally."

Like dominoes on the political playing field, as New York Republicans grab for more traditionally Democratic issues and voters (Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bloomberg have both done well among Hispanics), the Democrats are forced to find a way to demonstrate how they are different, in some cases reaching out for traditionally Republican issues (like tax cuts), in others trying to tag Republicans as copy-cats.

"Democrats need to make sure voters understand there is a difference, because the Republican playbook says, 'Make us look exactly the same as Democrats, except on cutting taxes, where we have a natural advantage,' " said Jeffrey B. Plaut, a partner at the Global Strategy Group, a political consulting firm.

But at the heart of the incremental yet transformative shift in New York politics may well be the rise of the unaffiliated and Independence Party voters. Statewide Democratic registration has increased by 35.7 percent since 1992, and even as the number of Democrats grew to 5.2 million, the party experienced zero growth as a percentage of total registered voters. In that same period, Republicans experienced a 17.6 percent increase in their voting rolls, to 3.08 million voters, but that was a drop of 4 percent in what might be called their market share.

In New York City, the numbers are worrisome for the parties, and particularly for Democrats. The percentage of unaffiliated voters has risen by 12 percent. At the same time, the Democrats' share of total registered voters has dropped by 19 percent as emerging left-leaning parties have cut into their base.

Those shifting dynamics are already playing out in two very different potential races: A Republican assemblyman, Howard Mills, intends to challenge Senator Charles E. Schumer in November, and Mr. Miller plans to challenge Mr. Bloomberg for mayor in a year and a half.

Mr. Mills, who says he has the backing of state party leaders, says he will frame his candidacy around two main themes: that as a member of the party that dominates Congress, he can deliver for New York, and that Mr. Schumer has been too partisan.

He will not, he said, accuse Mr. Schumer of being too liberal.

"I reject labels," Mr. Mills said in a recent interview, reflecting the new realities that have come to New York politics. "I am not into labels, I am into specific policy differences."

Running for mayor of New York is different from taking on a statewide race. The mayoralty is often decided on practical, quality-of-life issues like education, crime, trash pickup and snow removal. The mayor will face a challenge from the outset in a city that still has five registered Democrats for every registered Republican. He must appeal to moderate voters while still seeking to hold onto support among the shrinking base of self-described conservative Democrats and registered Republicans.

Meanwhile, his potential Democratic opponent, Mr. Miller, has tried to cut into the mayor's theoretical base on the right while reaching out to the traditional Democratic base as well by talking about cutting taxes and opening fire houses that the mayor closed.

An aide to Mr. Miller said that while Democrats in New York City are clearly "willing to vote for somebody with an R after their name," they are nevertheless more committed "to voting what they believe in."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

BrooklynRider
April 13th, 2004, 08:56 AM
Hmmm - I checked "Independent" back when I registered twentysomething years ago. There was nothing to indicate it was "The Independence Party". Whoever heard of that? Very deceptive. Now, I have to go and change my affiliation to "nothing" to have it accurately reflect my position.