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You've Got Them All Wrong, Mr. President

Obama's misguided view of the independent voter.

The White House thinks that Democrats got drubbed in the election because they lost the support of “independent” voters. Obama’s advisers, the Washington Post reported, “are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.”

In the president’s interview with "60 Minutes," only part of which was broadcast, but which CBS later put on the Web in full, Obama blamed his party's loss on Republicans being “able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that's not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country.” He promised to adopt “Main Street, common sense values about the size of government,” to do something about “debts and deficits,” and to end the “partisan bickering” in Washington by getting Republicans and Democrats “to work together to change things in Washington.”

In other words, the White House blamed Democrats' 2010 defeat on the loss of independents, and to win them back, it will try to slow the growth of government, encourage a bipartisan spirit in Washington, and reform the government process by eliminating things like earmarks. But what if this analysis is wrong? Not in its statistical facts—no one can deny that the Democrats lost ground among voters who identify themselves as “independents”—but in its interpretation of these facts, and in the political conclusions it draws from them. Here are some salient features of independents.

(1) There is no Party of Independents: Independents are not an organized or quasi-organized group like Democrats or Republicans that have headquarters and nominate candidates, but a creature of pollsters’ imagination. The standard question asked by surveys and exit polls is, "Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?" Those who answer “Independent” are independents.

Some states like Florida, California, and New Hampshire do allow voters to register as “unaffiliated,” “independent,” or “decline to state,” but this group is almost invariably smaller than the group of voters who identify themselves to pollsters as “independents.” In Florida this year, 19 percent of voters registered as “non-affiliated,” but 29 percent told exit polls this month that they were “independents.” So it is an elusive category to begin with—not one on which you would readily, or without qualification, base a political strategy.

(2) Not all independents actually vote:If you are considering basing your political strategy on winning over independents, you then need to ask whether there are certain features that unite independents; and whether these features justify a strategy singularly directed at winning them over. In surveying independents, the American National Election Survey asks respondents who identify themselves as “independents” to indicate whether they think of themselves as closer to the Democrats or Republicans or to neither. Pure independents, who identify with neither party, constitute only about 10 percent of the electorate and one-third or less of those who identify themselves as independents. If you look at their trajectory over the years, they rise and fall with the public’s distrust in government. They reached a peak of 18 percent in 1974 during Watergate, and also rose during the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 and during the Clinton scandals of the late ‘90s. Their numbers shrank in 2002 after the government’s response to the September 11 attacks.

These independents, who are alienated from the party system itself, are most likely not to vote at all, especially during midterm elections. Politicians can best address them by restoring their faith in the efficacy of government—as George W. Bush did immediately after September 11. That won’t necessarily happen through the kind of modest, good-government measures that the Obama administration is contemplating.

(3) Many independents are disguised partisans: In a useful survey of independents this September, the Pew Research Center distinguished between four groups of Republican and Democratic leaners: “Shadow Republicans,” “Disaffected Republicans,” “Doubting Democrats,” and “Shadow Democrats.” Let’s look at the two shadow groups. The Shadow Republicans, who make up 26 percent of independents, are very likely to vote Republican. They are white, affluent and well-educated. They distrust the federal government. But they are also more socially liberal than the average Republican. According to Pew, 74 percent of Republicans oppose gay marriage compared to 49 percent of Shadow Republicans. They could be expected to vote Republican unless the party nominated an outspoken social conservative like Sarah Palin. In 2010, when candidates campaigned primarily on economic issues, Democrats probably couldn't have won them over.

Shadow Democrats, who make up 21 percent of Pew’s sample, are more affluent and educated than the average Democrat. They tend to be middle or upper-middle class. Over half are white. They represent the growing support of professionals for Democratic candidates. They are as dependably Democratic in their voting as the shadow Republicans are Republican. They are not anti-government, they are liberal or moderate in their views, and according to Pew, they “express consistently positive views of the Democratic Party, President Obama and his proposals.” Why are they independents? What political scientist John Petrocik writes of many independents is particularly true of them. “A reluctance to confess a party preference,” he writes, “is nothing more than a reflection of the inclination of Americans to prefer to think of themselves as independent-minded and inclined to judge things on the merit.” Democrats don’t need a special strategy of appealing to independents in order to attract them.

(4) About one-third of independents are important swing voters: The two other groups, the Disaffected Republicans and the Doubting Democrats, who make up 36 percent of Pew’s sample, are swing voters who are not dependable partisans. They are overwhelmingly white. They are not likely to have graduated from college and many of them have not attended college at all. Most of them make less than $75,000. It’s fair to characterize them as white working-class voters. Why are they independents and not Republicans and Democrats? According to the Pew poll, both groups believe that “parties care more about special interests than average Americans.”

What accounts for the fact that the Disaffecteds are more likely to vote Republican and the Doubters Democratic? One source of difference may be the gender gap. The Disaffecteds are predominately male, and the Doubters female. Working-class women are more likely to see the Democrats as the party of economic security and to favor a liberal social agenda. But insofar as members of both groups vote for the other party about one-third of the time—they are not disguised partisans like the Shadow Republicans and Democrats—it’s probably most useful to regard them as members of a single heterogeneous group of swing voters who identify themselves for the moment as “independents.”

And the most important feature of them is not that they call themselves “independents,” but that they belong to a social group that since the 1970s has become an important swing vote. What happened in this November’s election is that many white working-class voters, including white working-class women, voted for Republicans rather than Democrats. As the Pew poll anticipates, that undoubtedly held true among white working-class voters who described themselves as “independents.”

These swing voters are probably one of the two groups that swelled the ranks of independents this election—up to 29 percent in this year’s exit polls from 26 percent in 2006—and tilted the vote to the Republicans. The other is probably the Shadow Republicans, which included voters who had previously considered themselves Republicans, but were alienated by George W. Bush’s second term.

Is there a special strategy that Democrats can use to win over these white working-class independents? And if there is a strategy, does it consist in “changing the ways of Washington?” I’ve not seen any exit polls this year that specifically plumb the views of white working-class independents. That’s probably much too small a category to register in the national polls. So to answer these questions, I have to rely on political history and on interviews I’ve done over the years.

From 1968 through 1994, many white working-class voters in the South and Midwest, alienated by Democratic support for civil rights, abortion rights, and gun control, became partisan Republicans. This group has been likely to vote Republican regardless of who is running or what the condition of the economy is. But for the last four decades, another segment of white working-class voters has gravitated between Republicans and Democrats. Some of these voters identify themselves as “independents,” but that could mean several things: They could be voting one year for a different party than they backed two or four years ago, or they may be splitting their vote. Or, in some cases, it may be because of an anti-government populism that includes skepticism about the two major parties. This description certainly fit many of Ross Perot’s supporters in 1992 and 1996.

In good economic times, these voters will sometimes back a candidate, regardless of party, whom they believe understands them or cares about them. That was part of George W. Bush’s appeal to these voters in 2000 and 2004. But faced with an economic downturn, they will oppose the party that they hold responsible for it. In 1992 and 2008 downturns, many of these voters, outside of the Deep South, backed Democrats because they blamed a Republican administration for the state of the economy. This year, these voters blamed the Obama administration for rising unemployment, and voted against Democrats. In this respect, the fact that some of them identified themselves as “independents” was irrelevant to their decision to back a Republican candidate.

Many of these voters are susceptible to populist appeals, especially during a downturn. After all, they blame special interests for their plight. And those special interests can include business as well as government, as the Pew survey found even in the case of the white working-class independents who leaned Republican. This year, in the absence of an effective populist appeal from the left, many of these white working-class voters embraced a right-wing populism of the type typified by the Tea Parties, which was directed primarily at the government and government programs. The Pew poll found, not surprisingly, that Shadow and Disaffected Republicans enthusiastically back the Tea Party—but as many Doubting Democrats said they agreed as disagreed with the Tea Party.

Because of their embrace of rightwing populism, white working-class voters rejected not only the Obama administration, but its programs. They believed that the stimulus and the health care program made the economy worse. Again, that included the working-class independents who leaned Democratic. Doubting Democrats disapproved of Obama’s Health Care legislation by 54 percent to 32 percent. (By contrast, the more upscale Shadow Democrats approved of it by 72 percent to 19 percent.) These voters now favor cutting government spending and reducing the deficit, although typically they balk at cutting programs that would actually reduce spending. That created a genuine political dilemma for the Obama administration and the Democrats.

What is an effective political response to this group? After the 1994 election, Bill Clinton, faced with massive defection of white working-class voters, adopted a strategy of rhetorical appeasement, declaring that the “era of big government is over.” He also eschewed any new major spending programs. But Clinton was blessed with an economy that, unbeknownst to voters in the 1994 election, was about to enter a boom. It really didn’t matter what Clinton actually did: By November 1996, he could take credit for the economic revival. And the boom was what mattered most to these voters.

Obama faces a much more daunting situation. If he not only embraces the rhetoric of anti-government populism, but lends his support to it by reducing or even freezing social spending, he will risk perpetuating and even deepening the downturn. That will ensure another landslide-scale defeat for the Democrats regardless of what Obama says and does about opposing government expansion. It’s the actual condition of the economy that wins or loses their votes. And what about changing the way Washington works? There are voters out there who care about eliminating earmarks, but they are probably not the white working-class voters who deserted him in 2010. If you want to see how much the white working class objects to earmarks, you can look at the failure of a Republican in Erie, Pennsylvania, to take the seat of the late Representative John Murtha, the king of earmarks, from Murtha’s former chief of staff and protégé, Mark Critz. Or you can look at the high opinion that West Virginia voters had of the late Robert Byrd. The primary criterion by which these voters will decide who to support is the state of the economy, not the size or civility or transparency of the government.

Much of what Obama proposes to do in response to the November defeat sounds depressingly like what he proposed to do in January 2009. It’s not that he didn’t try to work with the Republicans and to change the ways of Washington: He did, and failed, because the Republicans were determined to make him fail and appear weak. 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.

I want to thank Mark Blumenthal, John Sides, and Ruy Teixeira for their help with this analysis.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.