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How will independents factor into the Brown-Warren Senate race?

Who and what will decide the race — or at least who and what the campaigns are betting on.

iStockphoto/Globe Staff illustration

IF SCOTT BROWN were a superhero, he’d be Independent Man. I’m thinking purple bodysuit (a tint halfway between blue and red), a cape, a big sparkly “I” on his chest, and a winsome smile. His powers: conciliation and compromise. His enemies: rigid partisans. His Achilles’ heel: too much time around Republicans turns him red, diluting the potency of his centrism.

For much of the year, Brown’s opponent in the Senate contest, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, has attempted to pull off his mask, trying to expose him as a closet Republican loyalist who can’t be trusted to represent Massachusetts on Capitol Hill. That tack has maybe won her some votes, but its success has been limited, if recent measures of public sentiment are to be believed.

 Scott Brown shakes hands with spectators at the July4 parade in Wakefield.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Scott Brown shakes hands with spectators at the July4 parade in Wakefield.

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Brown, according to public voter surveys through the spring and summer, is generally well regarded, viewed by many voters as deserving of Independent Man’s mantle. That assessment may infuriate many Democrats, but it’s proved relatively durable ever since Brown promised in his successful 2010 campaign to be an independent voice in Washington.

The degree to which he has actually displayed that independence is certainly up for debate, and Democrats have a long list of issues on which they say Brown has put the Republican Party before his state, including votes against an extension of unemployment benefits and funding for summer jobs for teens; against a measure to raise taxes on millionaires; and for an amendment allowing employers with moral qualms to opt out of requirements — such as one mandating coverage for birth control — included in the new national health care law.

But it’s undeniable that Brown has picked a good moment to sell his message of political autonomy. There has perhaps never been a better time to straddle the partisan equator, to establish a personal brand based less on party and more on style and sensibility. In this, the Age of the Independent Voter, the profile Brown has assumed carries serious currency.

Independent voters have an almost mythical quality in American politics — these wondrous beings, willfully unmoored and unencumbered, roving the lands and swaying elections on their whims. Candidates compete vigorously for their affection, knowing that it can mean the difference between triumph and defeat. Independents’ clout and fickle nature can be exaggerated — some polling indicates there are far fewer true swing voters than many people think — but their growing influence is clear.

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KNOWN IN MASSACHUSETTS as “unenrolled” voters, independents have become a larger and larger share of the electorate, both in the state and nationally, according to polling and registration data. Today, nearly 53 percent of Massachusetts voters belong to no political party, the highest proportion in at least 60 years. Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates that there are more independent voters now than at any time over the past 75 years.

Experts on voting offer several explanations. Some voters’ lives are simply too full to give politics much attention, and they aren’t involved enough to identify with a party. Diminishing trust in institutions is another factor in eroding party loyalty, particularly among younger voters, specialists say. And then there’s the growing dysfunction of Washington, the disgust with polarized, party-first politics. Rejecting both Democrats and Republicans can feel like a modest but winnable protest. “They don’t trust the political system,” says journalist Linda Killian, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and author of The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents. “They don’t trust money in politics. They want compromise. They want results. They don’t want partisan yapping.”

Elizabeth Warren greets attendees at a campaign event held on the campus of Boston University in September.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Elizabeth Warren greets attendees at a campaign event held on the campus of Boston University in September.

The ascent of independents is hardly a surprise to candidates such as Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney, and President Obama, each of whom has ridden their influence to office in recent elections. Brown did it, too, in his 2010 victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. For those keeping track at home, that’s two Democrats and two Republicans. And that’s no accident. With less affinity for party, many independents vote the person, not the label. (It’s a safe bet there are voters who cast ballots for all four.)

While independents, by simple arithmetic, are important to both Warren and Brown this November, the two campaigns have somewhat distinct tasks over the final six weeks of the race. Because Democrats still hold a more than 3-to-1 advantage over Republicans in party registration in Massachusetts, Brown needs independents more than Warren does, which is why he’s going to great lengths to promote his bipartisanship and downplay party affiliation, almost to a comical degree. He slipped into August’s Republican National Convention in Tampa only briefly (he is really busy, he explained), and his campaign went into damage-control mode after a Globe reporter spotted him at a hotel restaurant with GOP uber-operative Karl Rove.

Earlier in September, Brown’s campaign cut a TV ad highlighting his push for a bill to prohibit members of Congress from making stock transactions on their insider knowledge. The ad, like a radio spot the campaign ran a few months earlier, invokes Obama, the head of the opposition party. To make sure viewers didn’t miss the footage of Obama telling Brown “good job” at the bill signing, the campaign put the attaboy in a subtitle.

Brown aides, armed with market research, voting histories, and other data, have spent months identifying independents and wayward Democrats whom they think he can win. “We’re out there mining these voters to find supporters whom we will turn out on Election Day, and that will continue,” says Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager. The campaign targets its messaging on an individual basis, so a voter concerned about Wall Street excess, for example, might get a call from a volunteer highlighting Brown’s deciding vote in 2010 to pass the landmark Dodd-Frank bill tightening regulations on the financial sector. Brown has also broken with many in his party by voting to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in favor of a jobs bill, and to ratify a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Throughout the year, Brown has enjoyed a solid lead over Warren among unenrolled voters; a poll in late May by the Globe and the University of New Hampshire Survey Center had him winning registered independents 48 percent to 25 percent. Another outfit, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, had Brown winning independents by a similar margin in a poll conducted in mid-September.

Warren is wooing independents on the strength of her populist message, talking bluntly about why she believes the tax system is inequitable and why big banks should have more accountability. She hopes to find common cause with those who are fed up with Washington’s failings and believe things are rigged for the rich and powerful. Indeed, in interviews with independent voters, an exasperation with government for neglecting the little guy comes through loud and clear.

For Warren, though, a significant aspect of her campaign strategy is to get Democrats to the polls, including those who have not voted consistently in prior elections. Party officials say there are about 300,000 registered Democrats in Massachusetts who haven’t voted in the last three state elections. As of early September, Warren’s campaign, with the help of 35 field offices around the state, is going precinct by precinct, knocking on doors and even enlisting their targets’ friends and neighbors to get them involved. “That’s a really significant part of our effort,” says top Warren strategist Doug Rubin.

Public polls suggest some danger for Warren among Democrats and also some promise. First, the danger: It’s clear that, at least into mid-September, a sizable bloc of Democrats were either siding with Brown or flirting with him. Thirteen percent of Democratic respondents in September’s Public Policy Polling survey said they favored him.

Then, the promise: There is evidence that Warren is gaining traction among Democrats by nationalizing the race — emphasizing that a Brown victory could bring a Republican-controlled US Senate, a prospect surveys suggest is considerably less popular in Massachusetts than Brown himself. Though the Public Policy Polling September survey had the race virtually tied, 53 percent of respondents said they’d rather see the Senate remain under Democratic control, compared with 37 percent who said they’d want Republicans in charge. (Independents tilted slightly Republican on that question.)

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BOTH CAMPAIGNS INSIST this is ultimately a race between Brown and Warren, not about control of the Senate. Brown’s camp remains encouraged by his enduring broad appeal. Warren’s is confident in its organization and message, believing there’s an important gap between the number of people who like Brown and the number willing to vote for him.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and founder of SocialSphere, a social media analytics company, paints a picture of the kind of voter who he says will probably decide the race. This voter is a working-class father, maybe a conservative Democrat or an independent, someone who has worked hard and played by the rules only to find himself suffering economically. And he’s finding no solace from Washington. “Is he going to connect with Brown because he wears the Bruins shirt and talks about fishermen and [Brown’s] a regular guy who’s going to be independent?” Della Volpe asks. “Or is he going to connect to what I would call bigger ideas about fairness?”

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at shelman@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

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