Polls show the 2004 presidential race remains close, with the American public almost evenly divided between President George Bush, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger John Kerry. But that doesn't mean there's a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. The Gallup Organization reports that 37 percent of Americans now call themselves Republicans, 34 percent Democrats, and 28 percent Independents. The number of Independents continues to grow, and their support has become vital to a bid for the White House.
John Avlon is a writer and communications expert who's worked for both former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican. Mr. Avlon says he supports political leaders who inspire him, regardless of their party affiliation. He believes he's part of a long-standing tradition in American politics - one he describes in his book, Independent Nation: How the Vital Center is Changing American Politics.
"It became very evident looking at politics today that while Congress has gotten more and more partisan, that that was a real disconnect not only from the way most Americans felt, but really from a strong political tradition in the United States," he said. "So I wrote Independent Nation as a way of saying to the vital center out there in America that they weren't politically homeless in fact, that there was a history and a heritage to be proud of."
John Avlon says America's first president, George Washington, warned in his farewell address of what he called "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party." While Mr. Avlon believes the give-and-take of a two-party system is necessary in the United States, he also believes Independents should encourage both parties to seek common ground.
"The Independent vote that's growing is also largely centrist, moderate. The way it tends to break down is that people are fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal," he said. They want an inclusive view of government, not a divisive voice from high executive office. If you look at voting numbers, fifty percent of American voters are self-identified as moderates, compared to 30 percent who call themselves conservative and just 20 percent who say they're liberal."
Studies have found the trend especially pronounced among younger voters. A Harvard University survey showed that about 40 percent of American college students identified themselves as Independents. Graham Bullock is a graduate student at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Last year he helped organize an Independent Caucus at the school.
"We were at a community building workshop, and we were asked to break into groups by political affiliation. And there was a small group that didn't fit into either Democrat or Republican ideologies," he said. "We found ourselves standing out in the hallway, and started talking about independent politics, and from that we decided to form a new organization."
Graham says he got tired of partisan politics growing up in Washington, D.C. His independent views were also shaped by the three years he spent living in China.
"I was exposed to the dangers of one party politics," he said. "I think true ideological commitment is very dangerous, as you can see from the history of communism and fascism."
American history offers numerous examples of independent political campaigns. In 1998, Reformer Party candidate Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. Consumer crusader Ralph Nader is running for President this year as an Independent. But Graham Bullock says he's more interested in influencing the policies of the mainstream.
"I think we're trying to stay away from hero worship and stick to the ideas," he said. "There are people out there, moderate Republicans and Democrats who are trying to be more balanced and lead from the center. But I think we're trying not to get too involved in individual personalities."
Harvard's Independent Caucus hosts lectures and discussions aimed at promoting different viewpoints and seeking practical solutions to national problems. Justin Oliver also helped organize the caucus. He says his views were influenced by growing up in a staunchly conservative household.
"I'd listen to a lot of my parents' rhetoric, and I would think it really just seems too one sided," he said. "And so I guess at some point I decided the way to go in politics for me is to start with what do we need right now, what does the nation need in terms or health care or something like that, and then move forward from there."
One champion of independent politics has laid out a detailed set of policy proposals. Mark Satin, the author of Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, says he draws his ideas from the best of what both the left and right have to offer. He cites his support of a mandatory national service program as an example.
"It gives people a choice," he said. "If you want to serve in the military, great. However, if you want to do Homeland Security, that's great too. If you want to serve in a purely domestic arena, if you want to do today's equivalent of civil rights work, you can do that for a year. It's a nice example of a case where the radical middle comes up with an idea that includes left and right values."
Mark Satin sees what he calls radical middle politics as an innovation that's ideally suited to 21st century America.
"It's politics for a high-tech civilization," he said. "It's a politics that could only work in a civilization that's so diverse that people are constantly looking to mix ideas and match ideas and take them from everywhere."
In the short term, Independents are looking forward to having an important impact on the upcoming election. Harvard graduate student Justin Oliver says regardless of how they governed, recent U.S. presidents have been elected on centrist platforms.
"Bill Clinton, with the 'New Democrat' movement, he was very willing to go with welfare reform and so on. And then George Bush was elected as a 'compassionate conservative,' the idea that conservatives can have a heart and do things socially," he said. "So there is a movement towards the middle, as far as elections go, and at some point there needs to be a recognition that the best leadership politically also comes from the center."
Justin Oliver is a founder of Harvard's Independent Caucus, and one of the independent voters expected to play a significant role in this year's presidential election.