The debt ceiling deal has been struck and the score looks to be in the neighborhood of Republicans: a zillion, Democrats: zero. It is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a process in which Obama treated GOP default-threatening tactics as legitimate and accepted the GOP framework that cutting debt, not creating jobs, was the country’s central problem. As a result, we have a deal that severely undercuts Democratic policy priorities and cuts government spending just as the economic recovery is showing signs of tanking. Just how, exactly, did it come to this? The most plausible explanation is that Obama and his political advisors are convinced that striking a bipartisan compromise on debt reduction is the way to the hearts of America’s political independents, who famously abandoned the Democrats in 2010.
Following this logic, Obama’s actions—treating the Republicans’ extraordinary threat not as an illegitimate bargaining tactic but as an opportunity—begin to make a measure of sense. Since independents are supposedly fixated on a bipartisan compromise to reduce spending and cut the debt, Obama would use the leverage provided by the Republicans’ threat, in a judo-like fashion, to enlist both parties in a grand bargain to restore long-run fiscal health. As a result, independents would reward Obama for being, in that tired phrase, “the adult in the room” who stood up for their fiscal priorities.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. As Obama has talked endlessly about a “balanced” approach to getting the country’s fiscal house in order, the economy has continued to stagger and that support from independents is nowhere in sight. Pew data show his approval rating among independents down 16 points in the last few months to an abysmal 36 percent. As for Obama’s re-elect numbers, they have also tumbled, with just 31 percent of independents now saying they would vote to re-elect him, compared to 39 percent for a generic Republican.
To understand how very unlikely it is that Obama’s long sought-after deal is going to magically turn around his numbers, we must visit one of the most robust but amazingly underappreciated findings in American political science: independents are not independent. That is, the overwhelming majority of Americans who say there are “independent” lean toward one party or the other. Call them IINOs (Independents In Name Only). IINOs who say they lean toward the Republicans think and vote just like regular Republicans. IINOs who say they lean toward the Democrats think and vote just like regular Democrats.
Right now, according to Pew data, IINOs are 68 percent of independents, split 36/32 between Republican-leaners and Democratic–leaners, respectively. That leaves less than a third of independents who might really qualify as independent. This figure, in turn, translates into just 13 to 14 percent of adults, and inevitably a lower percentage of actual voters, since pure independents have notoriously low turnout. In 2008, according to the University of Michigan National Election Study, pure independents were only 7 percent of voters.
So how’s the debt deal going to go over with these different flavors of independents? Well, Democratic IINOs and pure independents both are concerned about the job situation over the deficit by a margin of two to one, according to Pew data. In fact, the only part of the “independent” pool that actually thinks the deficit is more important than the job situation are Republican IINOs, who right now give Obama a 15 percent approval rating, the same as regular Republicans. Good luck winning that group over.
But maybe pure independents only say they’re concerned with the economy when their real passion is bipartisan compromises on the debt, and so they’ll ignore the bad jobs situation and turn out in droves for Obama. That’s not likely to happen either. As John Sides has pointed out, voting preferences among pure independents are more influenced, not less, by the state of the economy.
These are the facts, but politicians, and Obama especially, seem to have a hard time grasping them. Perhaps that’s because independents are the Rorschach test of U.S. politics—you see in them what your beliefs and preferences incline you to see. Obama and his team want to see teeming hordes of voters who are above the partisan allure of party, untroubled by the bad economy (or, at least, not planning to vote on that basis), and pining for a Washington where the parties, darn it, just work together. So that’s what they see.
The administration’s chimerical search for the independents of their dreams has not served the country, nor the president, well. Obama has stumbled ever further into a political heart of darkness, hemmed in on all sides by radical GOP views on government and governance. And he can’t expect independents to bail him out.
Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.