With stalemates and partisan bickering giving Congress a bad name, party affiliation is waning. Independent voters nationwide now outnumber Democrats and Republicans.
Yet independent candidates usually get clobbered.
Lack of money and poor name recognition can come into play. But mainly, says one expert, independents tend to be "closet partisans.''
The 2008 American National Election Study found strong "party loyalty'' among independents, said Alan Abramowitz, Emory University political scientist and author of The Polarized Public? Why American Government is so Dysfunctional.
Four out of five independent voters aligned philosophically with either the Democratic or Republican party, then voted 9-1 for that party's candidate.
"Even though there are supposed to be all these independents out there,'' Abramowitz said, "the electorate is more partisan than it used to be.''
This trend bodes poorly for two independent candidates running for Congress in Florida's new House District 12. They and a lightly funded young Democrat want to unseat Rep. Gus Bilirakis, 49, a Palm Harbor Republican seeking his fourth term.
All three challengers want the race to be about issues — Medicare, national debt and even whether drones should watch over U.S. citizens. They hope the district's 466,000 voters will study their positions online.
As laudable as these goals may be, in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way, the race will likely turn on party identification, name recognition and money, said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida.
The Democrat in the race, Jonathan Snow, is a 25-year-old Walgreens clerk with no financial backing from his party.
"If this district was perceived as winnable by the state or national party, they would have been willing to put up money,'' MacManus said. "The silence is deafening.''
Because of redistricting, nearly half of voters will see Bilirakis' name on the ballot for the first time. He loses slices of northern Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and picks up all of Pasco. By registration numbers, the district is 40 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic, and 26 percent other.
The new district is "more red,'' said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which rates the House seat as "safe'' for Republicans.
In 2008, Bilirakis' district went for John McCain 50-49. The new district voted 52-47 for McCain.
"The Florida Republicans who drew up the district maps technically were not supposed to take party into account,'' Kondik said. "But I'm sure the incumbent doesn't mind that he has a better district now.''
Raising cash is particularly important for challengers who need to build name recognition, Abramowitz said. But with money from individual donors and political action committees, the Bilirakis campaign chest tops $500,000 — 10 times what his opponents combined have collected.
Even voters' dismal view of Congress should not taint Bilirakis much, Abramowitz said. "Voters usually don't connect that to their individual representative.''
Still, a retail clerk from Tarpon Springs, a nurse practitioner from Dade City and a lawyer from Tampa hope they can buck incumbency's advantages. Here's a bit of their stories:
Jonathan Snow turned 25 in April and his professional resume is thin: substitute teacher and Walgreens photo clerk.
But he has summa cum laude degrees from St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida, is working hard at candidate forums, and contends that youth can be an asset.
"Right now in Congress, there is not one member of the millennial generation,'' Snow said. "It's no wonder that we go to war so easily when you see who might fight. It's no wonder why education is the first thing on the chopping block.''
Snow should enjoy a down-ticket boost from a contentious presidential race, political observers said. Democrats and independents rallying to President Barack Obama will support other Democrats as well. Of course, Bilirakis should pick up the same advantage from Mitt Romney voters.
Snow hopes the district's older demographic will look askance at the Paul Ryan plan for Medicare vouchers. But MacManus, the USF professor, expressed doubts.
"There is such a flurry of advertising on Medicare, it is polarized along party lines,'' she said. "People are going to hear such conflicting evidence, they won't know who to trust.''
The website guy
John Russell, 56, has worked as a financial adviser, insurance agent and nurse practitioner for cancer patients and people with blood disorders. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times as a Democrat when his Dade City home was part of a district that stretched to Levy and Marion counties.
Russell's shift from Democrat to independent is not surprising. He was booted from the state convention in 2010 during dysfunctional party infighting. Now he sports a "no party affiliation'' tag like a badge of honor.
Members of Congress "are supposed to represent the interests of the people, but they are clearly not doing that,'' Russell said. "Both parties represent their benefactors — the principal corporations of America — and Gus (Bilirakis) is a prime example of that.''
Russell portrays himself as a candidate with ideas. His website outlines dozens of positions, from Medicare buy-ins for all citizens to prosecution of Wall Street financiers who contributed to the housing collapse.
He even tackles drones used "for intelligence gathering against the American people.''
How will voters know where he stands? "I have a plan,'' he said, though he declined to reveal it. "It shouldn't be hard to figure out,'' he said. "Most people are on the Internet. And the ones who aren't will hear about it from the ones who are.''
Mr. Fix the Debt
Tampa lawyer Paul Sidney Elliott, 69, focuses mainly on one issue: the nation's debt crisis.
"I'm not running to challenge Bilirakis per se,'' he said recently. "I am focusing on a Congress that is so dysfunctional that the country is going down the tubes while these guys bicker about who is going to be in power.''
The country needs tough medicine, he said. Cut programs, raise taxes — "maybe 50/50 or something along the lines of Bowles-Simpson,'' a deficit commission appointed by President Barack Obama.
Elliott has undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, served in the Coast Guard Reserve, and is a certified financial planner as well as a lawyer. He was a Hillsborough County judge in the 1980s.
Elliott tries to spread his message through retail campaigning — waving signs, dropping off literature at restaurants ("No Party, No Bull!"). But he acknowledges that his chances are slim if he cannot win the recommendations of the region's two main newspapers.
Charlie Crist earned the Tampa Bay Times' nod as an independent when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. But he was a governor. Papers usually stick to candidates from the two major parties.