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This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit news organization. Find more in-depth reporting at www.sdnewswatch.org.
As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the two established political parties in South Dakota are working furiously to attract voters from a somewhat mysterious yet growing and increasingly influential voting bloc: The Independents.
Republicans and Democrats in South Dakota are making phone calls and knocking on doors to convince the 126,418 voters registered as Independent or No Party Affiliation to vote for their party’s candidates.
Mirroring a national trend, the number of voters who register as Independent or No Party Affiliation has risen sharply in recent years in South Dakota, growing by nearly 70 percent from 2006 to 2018.
Some experts now believe that the diverse and growing group of voters who place themselves outside the traditional major parties will decide whether Democratic state senator Billie Sutton or Republican congresswoman Kristi Noem becomes governor.
Since there is no formal Independent party recognized by the Secretary of State’s Office in South Dakota, and since the registration category is somewhat of a catch-all for voters who don’t identify as Democrats or Republicans, recognizing and pinning down the positions and desires of I/NPA voters is a challenge for candidates and campaign officials.
Yet few would question the potential influence those voters may have in this and future elections.
“We can only win with Independents and we realize that so we’re paying a lot of attention to them this election cycle,” said Aaron Matson, communications director for the state Democratic Party. “We definitely need Independents to win races up and down the ballot.”
Even for Republicans, who hold a big lead in voter registrations across the state, securing votes from the Independent voting bloc is seen as a key to winning races.
“We spend a lot of time on Independent voters, and trying to identify the Independent voters and see if we can get them to vote our way,” said Linda Rausch, vice chair of the state Republican Party. “It’s those undecideds or Independents in the middle, that middle ground, is where elections always get decided.”
Rapid growth of Independent voters in SD
This table shows the growth in the number of registered voters in South Dakota who self-identify as Independent or No Party Affiliation, and compares them to changes in registration of major party voters. The growth in I/NPA voters outpaced the losses in the Democratic Party and rose by 69% from 2006 to 2018.
Party Registrations % of electorate
GOP 240,101 47%
DEM 190,905 38%
I/NPA 74,905 15%
GOP 256,356 47%
DEM 158,843 29%
I/NPA 126,418 23%
Source: South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office
A growing political force
Independent/NPA voters now make up 23 percent of the electorate in South Dakota, with registrations up more than 51,000 from 2006 when they were 15 percent of the total electorate.
GOP registrations have roughly followed state population growth during that time frame, rising about 6.7 percent to 256,350 registered voters this year, or about 47 percent of the electorate.
Democratic registrations, meanwhile, have fallen significantly in recent years to about 158,843 this year, a drop of about 17 percent from 190,905 in 2006. Democrats now make up 29 percent of the registered electorate compared to 38 percent in 2006.
The rate of growth of I/NPA registrations from 2006 to 2018 — at 7.4 percent — outpaced the overall growth in state population, which rose 6.8 percent.
In South Dakota, I/NPA voters are locked out of Republican primaries, but can vote in Democratic primaries and also in general elections. Anyone who registers to vote and lists Independent, NPA or anything other than Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or Constitution party are lumped into the I/NPA numbers.
As of October, I/NPA voters outnumbered registered Democrats in nine South Dakota counties, including both east and west of the Missouri River and in both rural and urban areas. They now outnumber Democrats in Brookings, Butte, Custer, Fall River, Lawrence, Lincoln, Meade, Pennington and Union counties.
Nationally, recent Gallup polls have shown that the percentage of voters who identify as Independents is on the rise and has surpassed both of the major parties. In the latest Gallup poll from October 2018, 39 percent of respondents declared themselves as Independents, compared to 30 percent Democrats and 28 percent Republicans. In October 2008, a similar poll showed that 32 percent of voters identified as Independents compared to 33 percent each for Democrats and Republicans. In some recent versions of the national poll, up to 45 percent of respondents identified themselves as Independents.
Not only are more South Dakotans self-identifying as I/NPA voters, but a significant number of candidates are running as Independents in this election.
State election records show one Independent candidate running for the open U.S. House seat, seven running for state House or Senate seats, more than 40 for county commission seats, and several more for other county offices including sheriff or auditor.
Neighboring states that require voter registration or track party membership have also followed the growth trend in Independent or nonpartisan voters.
In Nebraska, the number of nonpartisan voters rose from 195,459 in 2008 to 252,898 this year, now making up 21 percent of the electorate compared to 17 percent in 2008.
In Wyoming, where Republicans vastly outnumber voters registered in any other party, unaffiliated voters rose from 10 percent of the electorate in 2008 to more than 12 percent in 2018.
In many states and increasingly in national elections, candidates are eyeing Independents as a critical component of success.
“In some ways we’re a restless engine, wanting to open up the system in order to put more power in the hands of American voters and less in the hands of political parties,” said Cathy Stewart, vice president for national development at the group Independent Voting. “As you’re seeing in your governor’s race, and as we might see play out all over the country, increasingly Independents are key constituencies that will decide outcomes of elections.”
Diverse, undecided and unpredictable
With generally loose official affiliations as a political party, tracking demographics of Independent voters involves much speculation.
“We’re diverse in every possible way – ideologically, ethnically, geographically and age-wise,” Stewart said.
Some trend lines about Independent voters have emerged, however.
Stewart and others say the growth in Independent voters stems from a strong feeling that the two-party system has failed to improve life and opportunity for many Americans. Leaders of the Independent movement also say the growth is being driven by the hyper-partisanship now dominating American politics and government, and that the divisiveness is turning off moderate voters who see fringe elements more in control of the major parties.
“What unifies us is that we’re a party of voters who believe that our democracy is being derailed by partisanship,” Stewart said. “If you ask Independents, they say they believe the two major parties are failing our country, and that they put the needs of the parties above the American people.”
A similar sentiment drove Brian Wirth of Dell Rapids to not only switch from a Democratic voter to an Independent voter in 2009, but also to run for the state Senate this year as an Independent.
Wirth was once active in Democratic politics and elections in South Dakota, but said he made his switch to Independent after seeing the two major parties move away from advocating for the middle-class and more moderate values.
“I don’t feel like anybody is representing the working class or farmers anymore; it seems like they’re only representing their donors,” said Wirth, 35, who is a fraud investigator for a private firm. “The major parties don’t represent the people anymore. They just represent big business and their donors.”
Wirth is one of two Independent candidates trying to unseat incumbent Republican Kristen Langer in Senate District 25.
Whether Independents are more likely to vote Democratic or Republican when facing a binary choice in general elections is up for debate. A Gallup poll in September 2008 showed that 48 percent of Independents leaned Democratic compared to 47 percent who leaned Republican. In the same survey conducted in October of this year, 48 percent leaned Democratic and 40 percent leaned Republican.
Larry Pressler, a former U.S. Senator and House member who served as a Republican but then ran a losing campaign for Senate in 2014 as an Independent, said I/NPA voters tend to have moderate views but that they lower their influence in both voting and in candidacy by not affiliating with a major party.
“By running as an Independent, I ruined my credentials as a Republican, and I couldn’t get appointed to anything as a Republican after that,” Pressler said.
The ability of Independents to influence elections, either as a voter or as a candidate, is dramatically weakened when they are not allowed to vote in primaries, which is true in many state and national elections, Pressler said.
“Primary elections are the determinative races in so many elections now,” Pressler said. “I’m just worried that by not letting Independents participate in the primaries, we may end up nominating people who are more to the extreme right or extreme left.”
Independent Voting conducted a survey of nearly 5,000 voters, nearly all Independents, who said they felt ignored by the media, major political parties and candidates. The poll suggested that a vast majority of Independent voters feel as though they are not heard or respected by government, elected officials and the media.
While the age range of Independent voters is not tracked, some political observers say younger voters and millennials are being drawn to the openness and unrestricted nature of being an Independent.
The influence of millennial voters
Richard Braunstein, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said his students are highly sensitive to and turned off by bullying behavior and have an aversion to extremes, both in their personal lives and in politics.
“A Democrat vilifying a Republican or a Republican vilifying a group of people based on their beliefs or practices, that’s what kids in school get bullied for,” Braunstein said. “They’re not comfortable with the vilification concept.”
Braunstein said some younger people have either tuned out of politics or become Independents who are energized by individual candidates or issues rather than generalized historic party platforms.
Furthermore, Braunstein noted that as politics has become more binary of late, both among voters and in the increasingly extreme platforms of the modern Democratic and Republican parties, some people identify outside the major parties to uphold professional ethics or to avoid being tied too closely to controversial party positions.
“Early on, Independent voters felt like they didn’t have a political home,” he said. “In the last 15 or 20 years, it has become increasingly acceptable to register as an Independent.”
Voters who declare as Independents may also have a tendency to fall back to long-held partisan views once in the voting booth, Braunstein said. He said if Sutton wins the governor’s race, it more likely will be due to Republicans voting for him and not because Independents supported the Democratic candidate in large numbers.
Either way, a movement by Independent voters to consider the values of individual candidates, or make voting choices on issues rather than doctrines, is a positive sign for American politics and government, Braunstein said.
“It’s reassuring,” he said. “When people are voting their interests and Americans vote for what their interests are, our political processes improve.”
If the number and influence of Independents continues to rise during elections, it stands to reason that those moderate voters and candidates will eventually lead to changes in policies and laws, said Rick Knobe, 71, a retired radio talk show host from Sioux Falls who was mayor of the city from 1974 -84 and is now a leader in the national Independent voter movement. He was a Republican for many years before identifying as an Independent.
“As there become more and more Independents, regardless of their previous affiliation, they’re going to be able to put more pressure on what policies are made,” Knobe said.
He theorized that as I/NPA voters begin to overtake Democrats in numbers in some South Dakota counties, that the dominant Republican Party will have to take notice. In a recent KELO/Argus Media poll that put Sutton and Noem in a virtual tie, about 21 percent of respondents listed their political affiliation as Independent.
“If I were in the leadership of the Republican Party, I would be really, really nervous,” Knobe said. “I’m seeing a shift, even in this election cycle. Here’s this rodeo guy and he’s in a dead heat with an established, long-term Republican. Who would have thought that was possible three years ago?”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.