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Obama and the Independents: Round Two

The debate about how Obama can win back Independents continues, and in my mind the big question is this: other than hoping that the economy starts recovering, is there anything Obama and the Democrats can do to win back the true swing voters among the Independents?

Over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides is skeptical that anything other than economic conditions will make a reliable difference:

Here is the bottom line. Voters don’t want style. They want results. Even independents.

Indeed, as Sides shows, the data are pretty clear that “Pure Independents” (the 10-15 percent of the electorate who are truly independent, and not closet partisans) are highly responsive to economic conditions. When the economy is doing poorly, their voting strategy is solidly of the “throw the bums out” variety.

John Judis makes a similar point in The New Republic:

Yes, Obama does have to pay attention to those white working-class voters who shift uneasily from one party to the other, but the way to win them over is to get them jobs—and if that fails because of Republican obstructionism, to make sure that these voters blame the Republicans not the Democrats and his administration for the result. If he can’t do that, his only recourse may be to get on his knees and pray that unbeknownst to most voters and many economists, a strong and buoyant recovery is about to begin.

But new polling from Third Way provides a counter-point, suggesting that it may not be just economic conditions driving the Independents’ swing:

The economy was not the only reason that switchers opted for a Republican candidate this year. For one thing, switchers are solidly middle class (median income range: $50,000-$75,000) and have a fairly positive view of their own personal circumstances—personal impacts from the downturn did not seem to be a driving force behind their votes. 82% of switchers, for example, rate their personal economic circumstances as “excellent” or “good” and 71% say they have suffered no major personal impacts from the recession.

The Third Way poll finds that “switchers” were concerned about the size and scope of government, are “cautious capitalists,” and have genuine concerns about spending and deficits.

Other polling, which I’ve detailed in an earlier post, suggests that Independents are also interested in moderation and compromise:

By a 63-26 margin, Independents want Democrats to move to the center, and by a 50-40 margin, they want Republicans to move to the center. By a 61-32 margin, they agree that “Governing is about compromise” more than “leadership is about taking principled stands.” That puts them a little closer to Democrats (who lean towards compromise 73-21, than Republicans, who are split 46-46 on the question.)

Clearly, the economy is going to be the most important factor in winning back the true independents, and in this I completely agree with Sides and Judis. But the problem remains that there is only so much Obama can do to change the economic fundamentals.

At this week’s PPI forum on “The Restless Independents,” Bill Galston suggested that Obama’s best strategy was to publicly offer an outstretched hand. If the Republicans accept, Obama will look like the post-partisan leader many swing voters hoped he would be; if Republicans spurn him, Obama will still look like the bigger man. I think Galston is mostly right.

But the two obvious challenges with such a pose are that 1) it’s unclear whether there is any realistic compromise Obama can have with Republicans and if he’ll just look pathetic trying; and 2) it’s unclear whether the economic conditions will always trump any perceived moderation, and if so, why bother to compromise when Republicans are clearly in no mood to do so?

My current thinking is that, yes, clearly, economic conditions matter a great deal. If the economy recovers solidly, Obama will be a two-term president. But it’s not the ONLY thing that matters. My guess is that there are at least a few persuadable voters who can be won on some mix of substance and policy, and if recovery is ambiguous (as it’s likely to be) something else might make the difference in 2012. So it’s worth trying to figure out what makes them tick.

I’m increasingly inclined to think that the Democrats would be smart to come up about some wedge issues where they could split the Republican caucus and draw out the crazies who will scare moderate swing voters into voting Democrat again, all while pursuing solid progressive issues that the American public supports and on which Independents look a lot like Democrats. I’m thinking here about issues like immigration reform (supported by 61 percent of Independents), and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  which is also supported by a majority. Independents tend to look a lot like Democrats on the social issues, and the Republican leaners among Independents tend to be more libertarian than your typical Republican. If the nativist, fundamentalist voices dominate the public image of Republican Party, that’s going to be very good for Democrats.

So, yes, if the economy recovers, Obama will win in 2012. But that’s far from a guarantee at this point. For my money, it’s also good to have a Plan B.

Photo credit: oaphoto


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