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The party's over for many voters, as more register independent

TALLAHASSEE — There's only one party with steady growth this year in the Florida electorate: No Party.

Newly released voter registration statistics show another year of gains for independent voters, while Democrats struggled to maintain their hefty registration edge over the GOP.

The figures also show Hispanics — a key election demographic — are becoming more Democratic and independent, while Republicans continue to rely heavily on white voters.

"You're seeing increases in independents," said Brad Coker, who works for Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "It kind of fits with the mood of the country right now. They're not happy with either party."

In all, there are roughly 11.1 million active voters: Republicans are 36 percent of the electorate, Democrats make up 41 percent and nonaffiliated voters are at 19.4 percent. Minor parties amount to roughly 3 percent.

Four years ago, voters with no party affiliation were 18.8 percent of the registration. That figure dipped slightly during the presidential election, then climbed this year.

During the same four years, the Republican share of the electorate has declined slightly from 37.7 percent in 2006.

Democrats, who edged out Republicans in 2006 with 40.4 percent of the registration, reaped a windfall in voters after a huge voter registration push helped Barack Obama win Florida. In 2008, the party enjoyed a 657,700 registration advantage over Republicans. That edge remains mostly intact, but fell to 612,000 in the latest numbers.

The latest numbers also show that Broward County is the single largest bloc of Democratic votes. Even though it's smaller than Miami-Dade, it has a much higher percentage of Democrats, compared with GOP and nonaffiliated voters.

The latest figures do not include about 1 million so-called inactive voters, who are still eligible to vote in the Aug. 24 primary but are in danger of being knocked off the rolls because of old address data. Democrats also note that they've outregistered Republicans every month since the 2008 election.

Karen Thurman, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said voters are only starting to pay attention, and will eventually warm to legislation extending unemployment benefits and giving aid to states, which she said saves teachers' jobs: "I think it's going to start sinking in."

Even so, Democrats have several factors working against them: Republicans are energized, the economy is moribund and GOP voters are generally more reliable in nonpresidential elections. Also, Obama's favorable rankings are declining among Florida voters.

"What really matters is voter behavior and voter performance," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. "These nonaffiliated voters, in their behavior, are Republicans."

But the Republicans could have a long-term problem when it comes to Hispanics. The party has held relatively steady among that demographic, while Democrats and independents have been gaining for the past several years.

"The Republican Party hasn't been saying anything friendly toward them," said Rep. Juan Zapata, a term-limited Miami Republican. "The harshness of the message of the Republican leaders, it tends to tune out the other issues that they might be receptive to."

The immigration issue could prove tricky for Republicans, who rely on a loyal base in Miami-Dade, where 70 percent of the Republican voters are Hispanic. Besides Cubans, the other main group of Hispanic voters in Florida are Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic.

"Both of these groups are almost by definition legal," said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University. "They don't have a problem with cracking down on illegal immigration. They have a problem if the rhetoric is anti-Hispanic."

Hispanics are also a rapidly growing segment of the electorate and are disproportionately younger.

"Who can reach out to that group in an effective way?" Zapata said. "The group is just going to continue to gain strength politically."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

The party's over for many voters, as more register independent 08/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 12:09am]

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