ST. PETERSBURG — The increasing number of independent voters should be a coveted demographic among candidates who run in Pinellas County. Voters who don’t identify themselves with a single party are often credited with helping President Barack Obama carry the county in the last two presidential elections, and winning the county for gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, a Democrat, in 2010.
“No candidate today can afford to ignore the independent voter because increasingly more Americans are classifying themselves as independents,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor emiritus.
Yet to expect Congressional District 13 hopefuls David Jolly, a Republican, and Sink to aggressively court independents ahead of the March 11 special congressional election would be naive, he said.
The two candidates are trying to appeal to voters in all parties. Sink met with independent elected officials from the district Thursday, and Jolly campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said the campaign “intend(s) to reach out to every voter.”
But reaching independents is difficult. People shed their party affiliations, or never adopt one in the first place, for different reasons.
“I vote in almost every election,” said Seminole City Councilman Jim Quinn, one of the non-party officials supporting Sink. “I do not vote for the party, I vote for the person.”
Quinn said he has mostly voted for Democrats, save for Ronald Reagan and Bill Young.
Florida’s 13th Congressional District has a strong presence of independent and no-party-affiliation voters — about 27.5 percent of its 455,791 registered voters.
“A lot of these probably are former Republicans who for whatever reason are discontented with the party and its policies and its leadership,” Paulson said. “This is a continuation of a trend that goes back to Watergate, when you had this huge distrust of government institutions in general.”
Florida International University political science professor Kevin Hill said many independents are those who think Republicans aren’t conservative enough or Democratic Party deserters who found their former party too liberal.
Even if they were easier to nail down, getting independents to the polls is another challenge.
TV ads and billboards are traditional advertising methods, but these days many campaign dollars are spent mining voter data and trying to draw out a solid and sharply targeted base of likely voters. That could be a waste on a large group of voters with divergent views and voting habits.
“When you spend money trying to turn out independents in a special election, that’s a very high cost,” Hill said.
So while campaigns target their respective bases to get the vote out in a truncated special election cycle, independents have little to inspire them beyond what they see in campaign ads and news reports.
“It’s solely dependent on their message,” said former Republican Ernie Bach, who heads the Florida Independent Party, which he launched in 1992, initially to support Ross Perot.