Democrats often feel like second-class citizens in Southwest Florida, but they could be in danger of looking up at another powerful voting block: independents.
The percentage of registered voters who do not identify with a major political party is on the rise in Collier and Lee counties. The increase — up about 2 percent since 2008 — mirrors an uptick nationally in the number of voters registering as independents.
The collective total of independents grew by 443,000 in six battleground states, including Florida, since the 2008 election, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News of data from state election officials.
Those six states — which also include Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina — also saw a net decline of about 480,000 Democrats in the same time frame. Republicans, on the other hand, added about 38,000 voters during that same period.
"There's a political odor attached to being a Republican or Democrat. It's like being in a smoke filled room, when you leave your clothes smell like smoke," Peter Bergerson, a political-science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, said about the increase of independent voters.
"It's the same with politics. (People) see ... a lot of faults and flaws in each of the parties. They're not so sure they like either of them."
The total number of no party affiliation, or independent, voters in Collier County is down from 2008, but so is the total number of registered voters.
Voter registration data from June shows 35,242 of the 169,788 registered voters in Collier County are registered independents — about 21 percent.
That's up from the 2008 general election where 39,555 of the 203,079 registered Collier voters — 19 percent — were independents. Twenty years ago, only about 8 percent of Collier voters were registered independents.
Those numbers, election officials said, do not include minor parties.
The same holds true for Lee County.
Voter registration data from April shows 26 percent, or 94,820 of Lee County's 368,293 voters are not Democrats or Republicans. That's up from the 2008 general election where 23 percent, or 73,858 of the county's 320,512 registered voters were not Democrats or Republicans.
That increase in independent voters could have a major impact on election results come November, experts said.
A Bloomberg survey in June showed 50 percent of independents view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 47 percent said the same about the Democratic Party. Both parties will be doing whatever it takes to woo independent voters to their side.
"They're probably the key to who wins the election, not only in Florida but in 10 to 15 other states," Bergerson said.
Jeff Bechdel, the Florida spokesman for Mitt Romney's campaign, said the campaign is hoping to attract Florida independents by focusing on the economy.
"Florida is ground zero for the pain that's been caused by the Obama economy," he said. "That's the message that is resonating with independent voters. The Republicans aren't going to be out hustled and (Romney) knows how important it is."
While the Romney campaign plans to use the state of the economy to attract independents, Derrick Donnell, a Barack Obama supporter, said the Obama campaign will likely focus on his ability to "reach across the aisle to Republicans and independents."
"He's reached out," said Donnell, a registered Republican. "What I've always admired about the president, even before he was elected for his first term, was his basic core philosophy of bringing people together."
But Bergerson said while campaigns may be targeting independent voters now, they won't feel the effect of their efforts until election day.
"They don't see the perfect candidate (in the field), they're just voting for the man, or the woman they like," he said. "They vote for a candidate that most looks like them. But independent voters ... make up their mind that the end."
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.