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Many voters reject the 2 major parties. How could that play into elections?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iowans Elliott and Diana Adkins say they like Haley's approach.

ELLIOTT ADKINS: I think she makes a lot of sense with the issues that are important to me. The economy is a big one. Inflation is huge. I think the border crisis is a big issue to me also, and I like her stand on that, what she's planning on doing.

DIANA ADKINS: I really like that she has experience with world issues.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Haley is a former United Nations ambassador. She served in the Trump administration. Austin Harris is an Iowa state lawmaker who says he voted for Trump twice but now supports Haley and thinks, quote, "she might be able to unite our country."

AUSTIN HARRIS: I got nothing against the other candidates in the race, but none of our policies matter if we don't win the general election. I think she's our best shot at doing that.

MARTIN: Now, we just heard the voices of a number of Republican voters in Iowa. But this might surprise you. The country's fastest growing political identity is not Republican or Democrat. It is independent. Gallup counted more than 40% of adults who consider themselves to be independent voters last year, while the number of Americans who support Democrats fell to an all-time low, matching Republicans at 27% each. So why do so many reject the two major parties? And how does that factor into the presidential elections? We called Lisa D.T. Rice. She is an independent political strategist and a board member of Unite America. It's an organization that advocates for electoral reforms like open primaries and ranked choice voting. Rice is also advising candidates in two races in the District of Columbia this cycle. And she's right here. Good morning.

LISA D T RICE: Good morning.

MARTIN: How do you define independent voters?

RICE: Well, I think we're the ones that are in it for the democracy. We are the ones that are in it for our country. And we put our people - we put the people ahead of the politics, ahead of the party. We're making a choice to be independent. And that's not necessarily the easiest thing to do in a country where 27 million of us are barred from voting in the presidential primary.

MARTIN: Well, I have to say, look. In the District of Columbia, where we are now, there are a lot of people who identify as independents or unaffiliated or for professional - for reasons of professional ethics - I mean, a lot of journalists, a lot of judges, a lot of clergy members, for example, who have mixed congregations, politically mixed congregations. I think it's just more appropriate to not align with sort of one party or the other. But some people think that that's kind of a fake identity, just to be honest about it. Some people think independents really kind of lean one way or the other. Do you think that's true?

RICE: I think that - and I am 1 of 6. One out of 6 of us in D.C. are independent, so I'm one of those. And we don't necessarily lean one way or another. We have opinions on various issues, and we vote on our issues, not the party, not for the people.

MARTIN: OK. So more broadly, more broadly. And looking ahead, obviously, to 2024, do you have a sense of where independents as a whole are leaning? And I'm guessing that that probably varies sort of from place to place. But some people would argue that independents are actually more likely to sort of opt out, sort of sit on the sidelines. Do you have any sense, even this early in 2024, of how independents are going?

RICE: My sense is if that one of the parties offers us something to vote for, we will be out. We will be the ones that make the difference in the 2024 election. And we're looking for someone that will represent a broader swath of the electorate. And that's us. And we're looking for it. We're ready to vote. So I wouldn't say that we're sitting it out.

MARTIN: OK, and does the growing number of independents suggest that there's room for a viable third party? Something that's been tried a number of times in recent memory, has not succeeded anywhere, really.

RICE: I don't necessarily think that a third party is the answer. I think that the answer might be one of the parties, probably the Democratic Party, really committing to opening themselves up and being the big tent party that they profess to be. But they're not necessarily opening that up for the - like, the young people. For instance, 50% of young people are coming in as independent. The Democratic Party isn't welcoming them.

MARTIN: Huh. That's Lisa D.T. Rice. She's a political strategist with a focus on independents. She is one. Let's turn now to political correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, you're still here with us. So when we get to the general election - like, what's your analysis of what Lisa just said? Do you see independents playing a decisive role or leaning one way or the other?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, right now, we know that independents, like both Republicans and Democrats, are pretty unhappy. They are uniquely dissatisfied with what is ultimately likely to be the two options on the ballot, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And the big question that will hang over 2024 - are people who don't identify with either party going to be more or less willing to potentially vote for a third-party candidate on a ballot? Obviously, there's a million different factors that will go into that, namely, which candidates get on which ballots in which states. But when you consider that the seven states most likely to decide this election, the seven swing states, were all decided by a three-point margin or less, a third-party candidate on a ballot could be a significantly huge spoiler effect in an election.

MARTIN: So let's go to senior white House correspondent Tam Keith to ask her that question. She's still here with us in the studio, as well. Is the White House concerned about this?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: They don't project concern about it. They think that, ultimately, independent voters, through a lot of persuasion and a lot of contrast drawing, will ultimately swing towards President Biden. Their view is that right now, voters don't - haven't really come to terms with the fact that this is very likely to be a rematch. And they believe that once that is clear, then their arguments that Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, small-D democracy, their case about abortion rights and other freedoms - that that will be persuasive to independent voters, you know, as it was, for instance, in the midterms.

MARTIN: Can I go back to Sue Davis for a minute and just ask if - some of these third-party candidates are kind of big names, at least in the world of politics. I mean, they're people that people who are politically interested know about. Do any of them have any appeal beyond that?

DAVIS: Well, I think one of the biggest questions, particularly for the Democratic Party, is not necessarily a candidate but something called the No Labels movement, which is seeking to potentially run what they would consider a unity ticket, a third-party alternative that would kind of come from a more centrist, moderate universe. This is - Democratic activists in the in the party, leaders in the party see this as one of the biggest threats to Joe Biden. But it's hard to be too worried about a threat if there's no candidate yet. But this is a new third-party movement that has already received ballot access in 13 states and is methodically working to get on more. And they have said if it ultimately does appear to be a Trump versus Biden election, they are more likely to put up a unity party ticket. That would come likely sometime in the spring of 2024.

MARTIN: Something to watch. That is NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. We were also joined by senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. And independent political strategist Lisa D.T. Rice was here with us, also. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.