Southampton is increasingly becoming a town of political parity, both in terms of its two major parties and for those who choose to shun party establishments entirely.
After decades in which the Republican Party dominated town politics, enjoying a three-to-one advantage in registered voters over all other corners of the political spectrum, the GOP now represents just a third of the town’s voters. The Democratic Party also represents about a third, and an equal number of registered voters do not affiliate or identify with either major party—or any party at all.
As of August 1, there were 12,842 registered Republicans on the town’s voting rolls and 11,887 registered Democrats, according to the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Two election cycles ago, in 2009, the gap was about double that difference.
And in this coming election cycle, for the first time ever, the largest segment of registered voters in the town will be those not affiliated with one of the two major parties. Those voters who are not registered with any party at all, known as “blanks” in the political world, have made up the third-largest block of voters in the town for more than a decade. But when the 10,054 blanks this year are combined with those 2,193 people registered with the Independence Party—many of whose members incorrectly see themselves as unaffiliated with a party—the legion of political free agents accounts for the second-largest grouping in the municipality, surpassing the Democrats and nearly equaling the Republicans.
The Conservative Party is next in line, with 712 registered voters. The Working Families Party has 153 registrants, the Green Party, 102, and a variety of other affiliations split the remaining 270 registered voters.
That means there are a total of 13,484 registered voters who are not part of the political mainstream.
“There is disenchantment with both major parties, and a lot of that is because of what you see at the national level,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., a former town supervisor, a former longtime Republican and the current chairman of the Southampton Town Independence Party. “The Republican Party has become less and less attractive in the Northeast … and all you see is Democrats and Republicans that can’t agree on anything and have led to gridlock in Washington, and that’s turned people off to party politics.”
Mr. Thiele acknowledged that few of the registered members of the Independence Party likely consider themselves members of any party at all, having checked the Independence box on their voter registration form as a signal of their desire to not be affiliated with any political group.
The closeness of the split between the two major parties, and the plurality of the unaffiliated, has introduced a new level of wild card to town election campaign and given new meaning to the term “swing voter.”
And in an election cycle that, historically, will draw the lowest turnout at the polls, because of the lack of any federal or state elections, the need to ferret out votes is at an absolute premium.
“This campaign is going to be about identifying who those persuadable voters are,” Mr. Thiele said. “Non-aligned voters tend to be less engaged. That makes them much harder to recruit to come to the polls.”
He noted that the effort by Republican town supervisor candidate Linda Kabot to get an additional line added to the ballot this November—the “Southampton Now” line—is a move that could draw votes from unaffiliated voters who are loath to check their marks on any of the established party lines.
The new political alignments are already having a big impact in town politics, particularly in the wrangling for minor party lines, and the effects are sure to be magnified in the years to come.
“It’s all about the candidates,” said William Wright, chairman of the Southampton Town Republican Party. “People are voting more for the person now. Our jobs, as someone who represents the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, have to be to find the best candidates. We’re going to be looking for candidates who are good community leaders and who have lived and grown up here. They’re the ones who are going to draw the votes.”
“In these small towns, the people know the candidates personally,” Mr. Thiele agreed. “The quality of individual candidates is very important. And you’re going to have increasingly competitive elections, so selecting quality candidates is going to be that much more important each time around.
“It’s good for the system,” he continued. “To me, the big winners will be the voters themselves.”