How influential in the most recent national elections were the three out of 10 actual voters who declare themselves to be not Democrats or Republicans, but rather independents? The answer in two words: decidedly and disproportionately.
Consider this: Prior to 2008, Indiana, having voted Republican in 16 of the 17 previous presidential elections, was about as reliably red as any state. But Democrat Barack Obama carried the Hoosier state by 28,391 votes out of more than 2.75 million cast. Because Republican John McCain and Obama each predictably won roughly nine out of 10 of the votes of his respective party members and because more Indiana voters were Republican (41 percent) than Democrat (36 percent), McCain would have won — except for the 23 percent of self-described Indiana independent voters whose 51 percent to 43 percent preference for Obama provided him an advantage of some 69,000 votes over McCain — or more than twice his entire statewide margin.
Obama’s winning margins among independent voters were key to his carrying Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio, among other battleground states. But for independent voters’ landslide (57 percent to 39 percent) backing of Democratic House candidates nationally in 2006 and by their 51 percent to 43 percent support for them in 2008, Democrats would not have gained 55 House seats in those two elections and the resulting majority control of the House.
But that was — most definitely — then, and that is certainly not now. Today, just 16 percent of independent voters, according to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, are confident (either “extremely confident” or “quite confident”) that President Obama has the “right set of goals and policies to improve the economy.” In the Aug. 17 Gallup poll, registered voters by seven points (50 percent to 43 percent) say they “would vote for the Republican candidate for Congress” in their district. But in that same poll, independent voters — by a thumping 47 percent to 33 percent — now back the GOP House candidate.
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In fact, when voter group preferences in congressional voting are compared, as Gallup has done, between September of the big Democratic year of 2006 and this not-so-currently promising year, the results are truly sobering for the current majority party. Democrats’ advantage among independent voters has gone from plus 46-31 percent then to minus 47-33 percent now — a drop of 29 percent, contrasted to a 12 percent drop in the overall electorate.
Alone among winning presidential candidates in the last quarter century, according to an analysis by political journalist Ron Brownstein, George W. Bush in 2004 was able to prevail despite losing the independent vote to John Kerry by a single point. Bush had carried independents in 2000 just as Bill Clinton did in both 1992 and 1996 and George H.W. Bush had in 1988. As the independents go, so very often go American elections.
It is a mistake for Democrats to dismiss these alarming numbers by arguing that independents are unrepresentative of the electorate and are somehow Republicans traveling under an alias. Forty-three percent of independents, according to the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, describe themselves as moderates, and just 38 percent as conservatives.
As every baseball fan learns, the key to winning is being strong “down the middle” — which translates, in addition to having strong pitching, into the successful team having strength at the catcher’s position as well as at shortstop and second base and in center field.
This may be even more true in this time of polarized politics. For a Democratic White House facing long odds in November, this means not firing their verbal shots at the liberal-left, but instead turning all its power of persuasion at courting and re-winning the decisive middle. To do otherwise guarantees failure on Nov. 2.