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Anne Arundel unaffiliated voters face a tough choice in November presidential election

When Matt Caminiti turned 18, he registered to vote as a Democrat because most people “fall into a political party based on the people around them,” he said.

His parents were Democrats, so he was a Democrat. In his early 30s, Caminiti, a Gambrills resident, said he switched his registration to “unaffiliated” because he was frustrated with the way he thought the two-party system generally garners “blind allegiance” from voters, and doesn’t require critical analysis of complicated issues.

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Bethany Stanley became a Republican at age 18 thanks to conservative parents. She switched to “unaffiliated” when she moved out at 19. Now a 31-year-old mother of three from Gambrills, Stanley still doesn’t see herself fitting into either of the two parties.

“I have a lot of views that are extremely conservative and I have a lot of views that are extremely liberal,” she said. “So when I go back home to the Midwest, I’m seen as being like over the top liberal and then I feel like people out here think I’m over the top conservative, so I just don’t fit in anywhere.”

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Matt Caminiti, is an unaffiliated voter, from Gambrills.
Matt Caminiti, is an unaffiliated voter, from Gambrills. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Caminiti, Stanley, and about 90,000 Anne Arundel County “unaffiliated” voters comprise about 22% of the county electorate with Democrats making up 43%, and Republicans 33%. Their numbers have swelled since 2016 as unaffiliated voter registration increased by 10,000, a 13% jump over the last four years.

In a series of interviews with The Capital before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Friday, some of those unaffiliated voters talked about the election this fall.

The Democratic party picked up nearly 15,000 new voters, a 9.4% increase, since 2016. Republican registration dropped by about 0.5% over the same period.

In November, unaffiliated voters must decide whether to cast a vote for one of the two major-party candidates for president — President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger Vice President Joe Biden — or vote third party. They, of course, could opt to not vote at all. Nearly 40% of such voters stayed home in the 2016 general election, according to county voter turnout data.

While Anne Arundel County has a large portion of “unaffiliated” voters or self-identified independents, they shouldn’t be viewed as a monolith, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

There is a misconception that all independent voters are “above the political fray,” she said, weighing each candidate and their platform before voting for whomever most closely aligns with their values. When the reality is there are few true independents, Kromer said.

“They identify as independents, but in election years, they’ll usually vote for either the Democrat or Republican candidate consistently in every single election.”

Polling shows that “unaffiliated” voters are split into three roughly equal groups of Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning and truly independent, said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

Statewide, voters who don’t identify with either of the major parties tend to be younger and more white than Maryland’s electorate, Kromer said. They also tend to be less politically engaged, Nataf said.

While it can be challenging to identify specific issues that drive independent voters, polling shows that tax relief and moderate economic policy polls well across all ideologies, Kromer said.

Historically, the county has voted for the Republican presidential candidate. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the county over Trump by a 6,000-vote margin becoming the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. About 20,000 people voted for a third-party candidate.

Trump has been “consistently underwater” with self-identified independent voters, who are much more critical of the president than Republicans, Kromer said. A poll Kromer conducted in February found that Trump had a 59% disapproval rating among independents in Maryland compared to 19% disapproval among Republicans.

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About 30% of Maryland independents do tend to approve of the president’s job — compared to 8% among Democrats — far before the 76% approval he garnered with Republicans, the poll showed.

Caminiti said tax policy and social justice are among his top concerns when selecting a candidate. Policy aside, he considers the demeanor of a candidate, and their ability to approach sensitive and complex topics with nuance. In November, he plans to vote for Biden.

“It was very clear to me — and it has become even clearer since he’s been in office — that Donald Trump is one of those people that lives in sound bites,” Caminiti said. “Whether Biden can do it or not, I don’t know, but I have more confidence that he can do it than Trump.”

Stanley and her husband Patrick, a 35-year-old engineer, both said their priority is pro-life issues, and not just abortion but also gun violence, the treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and the death penalty.

“I am very pro-life in all of its meanings and states,” Patrick Stanley said. “If they’re very much pushing for abortion, that’s a negative. The same thing for capital punishment [and] for lots of different stances that could fall under that category.”

Trump, a life-long Democrat, had expressed pro-abortion rights views for decades before running for president as a Republican on a pro-life platform. Biden has softened his views on abortion, promising last year to protect abortion laws and funding for Planned Parenthood if he becomes president.

Maryland, like many other states, holds closed primaries in which only voters registered to one of the two major parties can vote, effectively relegating unaffiliated voters to the sideline until the general election.

On top of the state’s heavily-Democratic bent, the state’s closed primary system is another that leaves independents feeling disenfranchised, Kromer said.

Patrick Stanley is currently registered as a Democrat so he could vote in Maryland’s June primary. Registering as an independent in a closed primary state like Maryland only limits his ability to vote, he said.

“From my understanding of Maryland election laws, being a registered independent only limits myself more,” he said. “So there’s no point in time where registering as independent is to my advantage.”

In 2016, Stanley and his wife, who were living in Virginia — another closed primary state — temporarily registered Republican and Democrat, respectively. He voted for a Republican candidate other than Trump and Bethany voted for Bernie Sanders.

While her husband is leaning toward a third-party candidate, Bethany Stanley said she has yet to decide who she is voting for in November but that she “probably won’t” vote to re-elect Trump.

Neither were able to vote in the 2016 presidential election because of a family emergency on election day, they said, and plan to vote by mail to ensure their vote is counted.

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Stanley had initially been high on Biden, but his choice of running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., turned her off, she said. She had hoped he would pick Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois and Iraq war veteran who lost both her legs in combat.

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He would have to “have a personality change” for her to consider voting for him, Stanley said of Trump.

“Maybe apologize for some of his past transgressions, and take responsibility for his bad behavior in the past,” she said. “Because to me, he is not a conservative candidate. He has been very naughty in the past. I just can’t vote for someone thinking they are conservative when they don’t live their life like a conservative.”

Chris Biondi, 46, of Sandy Point, who works for a regional plumbing union, said he is generally liberal, but he is a gun owner, and he differs from the Democratic party on other key issues.

Biondi said he’s heard from fellow unaffiliated voters that they will vote third party or they won’t vote at all. Though he said he understands the “when are we going to stop voting for the least bad candidate” mentality some voters have, 2020 is not the year to try it out, he said.

“In an election like this, I think that is borderline negligent,” Biondi said.

His priorities are education, universal healthcare and voter protection. He plans to vote for Biden.

Barbara Ambrose, a 32-year-old Annapolis grocery store worker, said she is favor of “smart” tax and spending policy and “revamping” social programs. Ambrose is voting for Jo Jorgenson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, she said. She voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016.

“They’re both terrible,” Ambrose said of Trump and Biden. “They’re all crooks. It’s honestly as simple as that I don’t trust anybody or any side.”

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