Muriel Bowser has a very big problem.
Not only is the Democratic candidate for D.C. mayor competing against a compelling and credible independent challenger in the Nov. 4 general election, some of her most ardent campaign supporters are plaintively imploring voters to support her utilizing an outdated and counterproductive message.
They may think they’re helping her, but attempting to coerce support with what they don’t appear to realize is an off-putting rationale is more likely to have the opposite effect. Their cocoon-bred perception of what might most matter to contemporary voters is way off the mark.
Whether Bowser wins or loses – and it’s looking like the outcome could go either way – she will inadvertently reveal a new reality about the electorate.
District voters, as with counterparts across the country, are increasingly less concerned about party affiliation than other factors when deciding our electoral choices. This is especially true in local elections.
Even Bowser supporters seem to understand this all too well. Recent entreaties essentially begging party-registered Democrats to support the party-designated candidate transparently belie the fear they won’t.
What these pleading partisans don’t comprehend, however, is that admonishing party-affiliated voters to back a candidate solely or primarily due to fealty to a particular party apparatus isn’t persuasive. Instead, it merely emphasizes candidate vulnerability and underscores that she may have more than a small problem prevailing.
In other words, in a modern political era in a rapidly evolving city with a substantial number of new residents and a growing younger voting-age demographic, it reeks of desperation.
Loyalty to political parties continues to weaken nationwide at an accelerating pace. In D.C., where an antiquated “closed primary” system precludes participation in the typically determinative initial vote if not registered with the overwhelmingly dominant Democratic Party, nearly one-in-five registered voters have nonetheless chosen the independent “No Party” designation when signing up. In half of the city’s political wards the number is higher, including in the fastest growing area of center-city Ward 2 where fully one-in-four registrations are independent.
Independents are the fastest growing segment of U.S. voters. Unaffiliated registrations have exceeded party-affiliated registrations in 11 of the 12 states with competitive statewide elections this fall, increasing 17 percent since 2008. Nationwide, the number of registered independents has grown by 11.2 percent in the past five years, while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans has continued to drop. In California, the secretary of state reported last month that both Republican and Democratic party registrations declined while “no party” independent registrations increased – with tens of thousands of registered voters switching away from both major political parties.
Fully 42 percent of all Americans now consider themselves independents, up from 36 percent in 2008, according to the latest Gallup survey. A majority of those under 35, at 54 percent, now self-identify as independents not aligned with either major party.
Further complicating the issue in D.C. is that local candidates essentially mount sole-source election efforts. The infrastructure of political parties is decidedly weak and general election campaigns are basically independent undertakings. For that reason alone, invoking a mythical party machine or even a purported adherence to vague party principles strikes District voters as ridiculous.
In a city where most candidates espouse common themes and hold similar issue positions in a larger political context, quibbling over party identification seems largely beside the point. It’s certainly no reason to blithely dismiss alternate candidacies without consideration.
To the consternation of the Bowser campaign, the recent appearance of “Democrats for David!” signage in yards and on social media indicates a potentially widespread willingness of party registrants to support At-Large Council member David Catania over the Ward 4 representative.
Bowser’s supporters make a mistake if they believe she can rely on the preponderance of registered Democrats to win her way to the mayor’s office without earning each vote.
Most of all, it doesn’t comport with modern voter attitudes – in D.C. or elsewhere.