Allegiance to parties wanes
Scores of churches line this charming community of streets punctuated by stately homes and trees. They even stretch out along the state routes leading into and out of town.
This is an old industrial place with a shrinking population, and it reflects the old tradition of each denomination proudly labeling its house of worship — Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist and so on — because early immigrants settled in neighborhoods near where they wanted to pray and churches wanted to advertise their brands to attract like-minded worshipers.
Twenty miles south — in Cranberry Township, a bustling suburban crossroads of two interstates — the churches are as abundant as in Ellwood City. But the township's newer churches tell a different story; built alongside housing that burst from former farmland, they do not use denominational labels on their logos and signs, or even in their Yellow Pages listings.
“Labels are losers in today's marketing environment,” explained Brad Todd, a Tennessee native and a Washington media expert for Republicans. “Successful communicators sell their personality, ideas and differentiated benefits, not their category.”
Americans are going through a similar metamorphosis in their political identities.
In the years following the December 2000 court battles of Bush v. Gore , something happened in America: Voters decided which jersey they wore, and they wore it all the time.
Yet, since the 2006 midterms, people trust political parties less, just as they trust every institution less, from retail giants to religious denominations — but they are becoming pretty loyal to ideologies.
A recent Gallup survey showed that 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as political independents, a sky-high figure, while both major political parties are suffering their lowest-ever identification numbers — Republicans at 25 percent, Democrats at 31 percent.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster based in Washington, sees a similar trend in his data.
“With neither party perceived as ‘getting the job done,' party allegiance is slipping,” he said. He pointed to President Obama's unpopularity, the GOP's tarnished brand, eight years of recession (at least in voters' minds) and extreme frustration with government and politics-as-usual as the biggest factors behind that slippage.
“We are coming off two generations of adults who defined themselves by their affiliations and labels (and) into several successive generations that define themselves by their individual decisions and philosophies,” said Todd.
So must-have labels of the past, such as Calvin Klein jeans, Budweiser beer or the tug between whether you were a Coke or Pepsi drinker, have given way to off-brand jeans that are bought for style and fit, neighborhood microbreweries that are popping up all across the country and competing high-energy juices that have replaced the cola wars.
In short, because people avoid labels at all cost in their shopping carts, it only makes sense that they would avoid partisan labels.
While the Gallup data seem to suggest that fewer Democrats than Republicans now call themselves independents, a bit of nuance is at work here: Several pollsters note that their data show those who were Republicans and now call themselves independents are nearly all self-identified conservatives — but are not all tea partyers.
Both parties are suffering great internal fractures. The Republicans' family feud is much more open and bloody than that of Democrats, because Republicans are the party that is not in power. But this midterm election cycle will publicly scrape open the Democrats' wounds, as they move away from Barack Obama and struggle with the progressive faction of their party.
And there are signs that this election cycle may become a GOP resurrection. It takes time for a party to get its act together after losing, and Republicans finally are getting themselves together after their 2008 defeat. (In many ways, the “tea party” victory of 2010 was something of an illusion about the GOP's strength because many of those voters were not party regulars, which gave Republicans a false sense of hope about their chances in 2012.)
One thing is for certain, however: The unifying characteristic among all denominations of voters is their universal hatred for Washington and their increasing distaste for politics in general.
How each party deals with that will be the underlying story in American politics this year.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320 -7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org).