Obama's Misguided View of the Independent Voters

President Obama's Democratic party lost control of the House of Representatives in November 2010.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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."