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Strategists differ on impact of Arizona’s independent voters

PHOENIX — Arizona’s primary election is Tuesday, and besides several heavily contested Republican races, political strategists are keeping an eye on a shift in party lines.

This is the first year that nonaffiliated, or independent, voters outnumber Republicans in the state, showing a shift from the staunch conservative stronghold of Arizona’s past.

Paul Bentz, a vice president with public affairs consultants High Ground Inc., in Phoenix, said the number of independents showing up at the polls for the primary should double from the primary in 2012.

“They’re upwards towards 13-14 percent of the total turnout in the Republican Primary at least. Some believe it could go higher than that. Yes they’re playing a larger role,” Bentz said.

KTAR political expert Mike O’Neil said the move away from designated parties has been accompanied by an uptick in the number of independents who are participating in elections.

“They’ve had the right to vote in primaries since 1998, but they have not exercised that vote until this year,” he said.

Other strategists are not as convinced of the impact independents will have.

Political expert Bruce Merrill said even though the number of independents is up, those who are not affiliated with parties are not politically unified enough to shift key votes away from candidates who appeal directly to Republican or Democratic bases.

“I think there’s a tendency to look at independents as some kind of a third party, (and) they are not,” Merrill said. “There’s a tendency to think of independents as somehow politically homogenous and the data (and) research we do just does not show that.”

Merrill said the discord among independents is because nonaffiliated voters are comprised of liberals, conservatives and moderates all in one.

Further dampening their impact is that many independents are not affiliated because they are disenfranchised with politics and skeptical of both parties, which in turn often reduces their turnout at the poles, Merrill explained.

“The people that vote tend to be the ideologues,” Merrill said, meaning they are more often those who are politically aligned with specific parties and actively involved in politics.

KTAR’s Jim Cross contributed to this report.