In the next few days, we’re going to be hearing a lot about how the Democrats lost “independents,” who, after breaking for Democrats in both 2006 and 2008, broke hard this time for Republicans, and for the third straight cycle, voted against the party in power.
And while it’s clear that “independents”, who now make up 37 percent of the electorate (as compared to 34 percent for registered Democrats and 29 percent for registered Republicans) hold the balance of power in American politics, understanding how to win them or even who they are and what they want is less clear.
In short, the best way to win back “independents” is this: Obama and the Dems need a little bit of patience, a lot of attention to pragmatic problem-solving, and the ability to resist the temptation to hunker down and move to the left.
But before getting to details of the political prescriptions, any discussion about the mood independents needs to begin with the observation that “independents” is a much more varied category than almost all pundits make it out to be. Many independents are actually shadow partisans, and a good number even see themselves are too far left or right for the two parties.
According to Gallup, only 43 percent of independents indentify themselves as “moderate,” while 35 percent say they are “conservative “and 18 percent say they are “liberal”. By comparison, 39 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans identify themselves as “moderate.” In other words, independents are hardly more “moderate” than Democrats.
In a recent survey, Pew broke independents down into five categories: “Shadow Republicans” (26 percent of independents); “Disaffected Republicans” (16 percent); “Shadow Democrats” (21 percent); “Doubting Democrats” (20 percent); and “Disengaged” (17 percent). As the names suggest, the shadow partisans vote somewhat predictably as partisans, while the Disaffected/Doubting class are slightly less reliably partisan, and the “Disengaged”, while most likely to be true independents, are also the least likely to vote – only 21 percent told Pew they were planning to vote this November.
So one way to think of independents is in terms of various degrees of independence. At the core are the true, true independents, who political scientists estimate to be about 10 percent of the electorate. These tend to be the most disaffected, disengaged voters, and lacking the ideological litmus tests of partisans, they also tend to be the most subject to the atmospherics and moods of how the country is doing and how even their own life is going rather than caring whether so-and-so voted the “right way” on some particular issue.
This probably goes a long way in explaining why they abandoned Democrats. Given the struggling economy, there is a desire to do something different, regardless of whether or not it makes sense – what Shankar Vedantam recently described as “action bias.” But it also means that they could turn just as quickly against Republicans, as they have in the past.
The lack of ideological attachment also suggests that while vague sloganeering against “big government” may make a good rallying cry, in all likelihood, few of these performance-based voters care all that passionately about the size of government. Rather, they are latching onto the most available explanation for the current sorry state of affairs. In their gut, they sense something is not working, but don’t have well-formed theories about what, exactly, it is that is not working. And, of course, they’d be hard-pressed to lay out exactly what they’d cut. They are not ideological crusaders. They are just generally cranky.
Expanding to the weak partisans – the so-called “Disaffected Republicans” and “Doubting Dems” – widens the category to bring in both the Republicans who probably dropped from the GOP column in 2006 and 2008 and either voted Dem or stayed home, and the Dems who are presumably crossing over or staying home this time (only 23 percent of the so-called “Doubting Democrats” told Pew that Obama’s policies have made economic conditions better, as compared to 50 percent for partisan or shadow Democrats). The weak partisans are more cynical and more anti-politician than their shadow partisan counterparts, and are accordingly probably more susceptible to the “throw the bums out” mood than their shadow partisans, who maintain a more interest in candidate positions and ideology.
Obviously, there is a mood of unusual restlessness in this country. This election marks the first time in almost 60 years that THREE consecutive elections resulted in House pick-ups of 20 or more seats for one party or the other (Dems picked up 31 seats in 2006, and 21 in 2008). One has to go back to 1952, when Republicans picked up 22 seats, marking the then-fifth consecutive House election of 20+ seat swings.
It’s also worth noting that 74 percent of independents now support the idea of a third party, up from 56 percent in 2003, and almost two-thirds (64 percent) of independents think that, “both parties care more about special interests than average Americans.” (Of course, it’s not just independents who want a third party – it’s also 47 percent of registered Republicans and 45 percent of registered Democrats, and overall, 58 percent of Americans who feel the two-party system is not providing adequate representation.)
So how can Democrats win back and re-mobilize these perpetually disaffected and disengaged types who broke for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and then either turned Republican in 2010 or just stayed home?
Partially, they just have to be patient and mature, since two big things are likely to happen in the next two years that will benefit them:
- The economy is likely to improve, and Obama and the Dems should be able to take credit for this if they manage their communications strategy correctly, which will help with the performance-based calculus of these voters.
- Republicans are likely to over-reach politically and spend too much time blocking administration initiatives, and holding investigations that lead nowhere. This may play well with the base, but it is unlikely to impress the non-ideological independents who are more interested in whether something is being done to help them pay their mortgage or get a job. If Obama and the Dems can offer a problem-solving oriented contrast to the ideological rampage of angry Republicans, they will benefit from looking like the adults in the room, just as they did in the 2008 election.
Will this be enough by itself to win back the sliver of disaffected independents who hold the keys to the balance of power? Maybe so, but maybe not.
To the extent that Obama and the Democrats want to win back the lost independents, they need to do their best to show them that they are reasonable, interested in making government work, and capable of making government work.
There will be great pressure, no doubt, from those who want Obama to draw a clear distinction with Republicans by pushing a more clearly left agenda. While this may excite the 20 percent or so of the electorate who are true liberals, it will all but ensure the kind of partisan gridlock that makes disaffected independents disaffected in the first place, further turning them off from politics (and making base voters even more important, which would be stupid, since the Republican base is bigger).
These swing independents don’t care much about ideology. They don’t pay attention to it, and they don’t vote on it. They care whether things are getting better and whether the folks in Washington look like they are trying to make things work.
There are plenty of sensible, centrist initiatives on important issues like energy, education, taxes, and infrastructure that we at PPI will be exploring over the next several months. We believe these solutions are both good policies and good politics for the same reason – because they are moderate approaches that can work, and in the process show some enough of the disaffected, non-ideological independents that Democrats are the party who is actually serious about governing.