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Voters declaring their independence, study says

WASHINGTON -- Voters increasingly are declaring their independence from the Democratic and Republican parties following decades of political scandals, negative campaign tactics and partisan bickering.

An eight-year trend study involving 13,651 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found less than one-third profess strong allegiance to the traditional political parties.The fastest growing political groups in America are "other" and people who say they are politically undecided, reflecting the rising popularity of alternative groups like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's Reform Party or a general indecisiveness over the traditional political scale.

The number of people who are "undecided" or of "other" political orientations has nearly doubled from 1992 to 1999, rising from as low as 6 percent in the early 1990s to 13 percent in a poll completed last month.

Many political observers agree that much of the blame for declining loyalty to the traditional parties rests with how politicians have conducted themselves in the 25 years since Watergate. Feuds between Republicans and Democrats increasingly have turned voters off.

"So much of what passes for public life consists of little more than candidates without ideas hiring consultants without conviction to stage campaigns without content," said former President Gerald Ford. "The result increasingly is elections without voters."

Ford said it's no coincidence that the 1996 presidential election was the first national contest in modern times in which a majority of adults of eligible voting age stayed home.

The poll found that 58 percent of all adults say they are politically independent, although many of these say they sometimes "lean" toward the Republicans or the Democrats.

"This pattern is real," said Curtis Gans, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "We see it in registration data in which independence is the greatest political growth industry."

Gans said that in 1964, in all regions except the Deep South, 45 percent of voters were registered as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans and only 1 percent as independents. The rest were unregistered.

"Now Democrats represent about 32 percent, Republicans about 25 percent and independents at about 14 percent," Gans said. He said the major parties should look to themselves for the source of increasing voter independence.

"Neither party has a durable message or a clear set of principles," Gans said. "People are progressively turned off by cynicism and the lack of any sense of comity and decency in the political enterprise."

The poll found that if party loyalty has declined, adults' sense of ideological affinity has not. They have no problem telling pollsters whether they consider themselves to be "liberal," "conservative" or in "the middle of the road." Only 8 percent could not place themselves on this simple ideological scale in 1992, compared to 7 percent in 1999.

"Eschewing party membership should not necessarily be viewed as a sign that independents reject what the Republican or Democratic parties stand for," said Lydia Saad, managing editor of the Gallup Poll. "Most members of the Republican and Democratic parties, on the other hand, view the opposing parties in negative terms."

There have been only minor changes in the balance of power among Democrats and Republicans, according to the trend study. The two parties have established a stable parity among the public, reflecting their close margins in Congress and in most presidential elections.

The poll found that Democrats dropped to their lowest level in 1994 and 1995, when Republicans took control of both the Senate and the House. Only about 14 percent of the adults in the surveys described themselves as a "strong Democrat."