The Independent Illusion
Greg Sargent published an interesting report yesterday from Colorado, where he’s been doing some old fashioned journamalism by talking to undecided voters in the Denver area. Greg writes that his findings should give both candidates pause, but take a look at what these prospective voters are actually saying and tell me they don’t sound like they’ll ultimately opt for four more years:
Jeff, an independent who works at a foundation in Denver but lives in outlying Wheat Ridge, voted for Obama last time but now says he’s undecided and is leaning marginally towards Romney. He sounded a refrain I heard often: “I think he did the best he could. It was a tough position to be in. I think anybody would have had great difficulty.”
Jeff is fully aware of Romney’s arguments — his pledge to get the economy going through tax cuts and deregulation — but doesn’t buy them yet. “It’s been tried before, and failed,” he said. “There’s no fresh approach from Romney that I see.” It’s because Jeff doesn’t believe that Romney could do better on the economy that Obama’s one term of experience remains a reason to vote for him again — it’s “on the job training” that Romney lacks. But Jeff thinks things have stagnated and he could vote for Romney: “I can be swayed either way.”
Sue, a personal trainer and Democrat from Lakewood who voted for Obama last time, is exactly the sort he needs again — yet she remains undecided. She repeatedly claimed Obama had inherited a terrible situation. “It takes a lot more time than four years to turn a big ship,” she said. “There were a lot of big issues he needed to deal with.”
Sue, too, was conversent in Romney’s arguments about the economy, but didn’t believe them. “I don’t beleve [sic] he has a magic lamp, where he can make a wish and it just happens,” she said. And yet she said her own personal situation had not improved, and that she was fully open to voting for Romney if he gave her a good reason to.
Another independent from Wheat Ridge professed himself “disappointed” in Obama and said he was seriously considering Romney. But of Obama, he added: “He was doomed from the start.” […]
Another independent from the area, a computer consultant, voted for Obama last time, likes his prescriptions for the future and agrees more spending would juice the economy. But this isn’t enough to lock him down, and he wants to see what Romney has to offer: “As an independent that’s what I want to see — a choice.”
The last example — the computer consultant — strikes me as most representative overall. Like most of the others, he buys into the framing the Obama campaign would prefer, that the President inherited a nightmarish state of affairs upon assuming office, has done the best he could reasonably be expected to do, and has a better plan for the future than his Republican opponent. While this voter doesn’t explicitly reject the GOP formula for kickstarting the economy, his agreement with the Administration, that increased spending is the way out of the morass, should near-inevitably lead him to eventually side with Obama.
The only reason the computer consultant gives for not yet perceiving himself as an Obama voter is his desire to maintain his natural independence. There’s no policy recommendation he’s hoping to see from Romney or the President; his noncommittal is stylistic, not substantive. If we disregard his and the other voters’ claims to be up-for-grabs and instead look at their estimation of Romney’s agenda, which is on the whole quite negative — “It’s been tried before, and failed”; “no magic lamp, where [Romney] can make a wish and it just happens” — there’s little reason to believe that Obama won’t persuade them to vote Democratic.
More than a picture of toss-up votes, what I think Sargent’s article illustrates is the flimsy and ever-diminishing reality of the truly independent Independent. Pundit discourse tends to treat this chunk of voters — today the largest self-identified bloc in American politics — as if they were relatively homogeneous, each one as likely to vote for either party as the other. In truth, however, independents are much more ideological than you’d think. Most independents, when pushed, will say they “lean” towards one Party over the other. If we factor in this leaning, the differences between self-identified partisans and independents are marginal at best:
[In 2008] 87% of [“leaning” independent] voted for the candidate of the party they leaned toward: 91% of independent Democrats voted for Barack Obama while 82% of independent Republicans voted for John McCain. That 87% rate of loyalty was identical to the 87% loyalty rate of weak party identifiers and exceeded only by the 96% loyalty rate of strong party identifiers.
I’ve got a pretty good example of one of these kinds of leaning-independents: Me! In some ways, I’m hardly representative of all independents (most of us aren’t bloggers) but in my “leaning” being determinative of my vote nearly 100 percent of the time, I’m what you’d expect. And if research and experience is any guide, the independents Sargent spoke with in Colorado are no different. Maybe we value our intellectual autonomy more than others, maybe we don’t want to be inundated with mail from whichever Party we lean towards; or maybe we’re starved for attention.
Whatever the reason, don’t listen to us when we tell you we could go either way. Nine times out of 10, we won’t.