(2008 American National Election Study, via Alan I. Abramowitz)

Pew Research Center released a study of independent voters last may that may help refute the Washington conventional wisdom. That CW, roughly, states that independent voters are middle of the road moderates who don't support either party but swing their votes to and fro depending on what is important to them. They are fiscal conservatives who want a balanced budget. They are pragmatic centrists who want bipartisan solutions to every problem. They don't like partisan bickering or political fighting. What they want is a harmonious, fiscally prudent government that doesn't do too much or too little. Sort of a walking army of Midwestern Lutheran insurance actuaries.

The conventional wisdom on independents is, naturally, completely wrong. Independents are not a monolithic group of moderates. In fact, they are very diverse in their political opinions and there isn't a "move to the middle" formula that will win them over. Moderates, in fact, are now overwhelmingly Democrats. Independents are, for the most part, disaffected political partisans.

The American National Election Study learned that of the vast majority of independents who voted in 2008, 21 percent of independents were truly independent. The rest, all 79 percent, had a definite party preference. Their votes:

Fully 87% of them 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.

In other words, independents who prefer Democrats vote like Democrats, and independents who prefer Republicans vote like Republicans. The vast majority of independents are not truly independent, but are for whatever reason partisans who don't want the party label. For example, look into the heart of the "independent Democratic leaner" and what you will find is a group often more liberal than those who consider themselves Democrats. Seventy-one percent of self-identified strong Democrats support universal healthcare, but 76 percent of independent leaners do. Also, 49 percent of self-identified strong democrats support marriage equality, but 59 percent of independent leaners do. Alan I. Abramowitz concluded this from analyzing this data:
These results suggest that the high level of support given by independent leaners to their own party’s presidential candidate was not due simply to a short-term preference for that candidate over his opponent but instead reflected longer-term ideological and policy preferences. Based on this evidence, independent leaners are unlikely to be “up for grabs” in 2012. Regardless of who wins the Republican presidential nomination, we can expect the overwhelming majority of independent leaners, like the overwhelming majority of strong and weak identifiers, to remain loyal to their party because they strongly prefer their party’s policies to the opposing party’s policies.

It is highly unlikely that folks who lean toward either party, and remember the vast majority of independents lean, are going to swing their votes to and fro between the parties. What is likely, however, is that many independents may not be as motivated to vote as strong or weak partisans. To solve this problem, the parties need to motivate them to vote. Since the matrix of issues that motivate independents will more or less coincide with those issues that motivate party partisans, political strategists should do something counter-intuitive to the conventional wisdom: To win independents, motivate your base.

What happened in the 2010 election wasn't so much that independents swung their votes solidly toward Republicans. The Democratic leaning independents didn't show up. There is evidence to back this up.

The 2010 midterms revealed the fragility of this electoral base. While both Solid Liberals and Hard-Pressed Democrats remained solidly behind Democratic congressional candidates in 2010, support slipped substantially among New Coalition Democrats and Post-Moderns – not because Republicans made overwhelming gains in these groups, but because their turnout dropped so substantially. Where two-thirds of New Coalition Democrats came out to vote for Obama in 2008, just 50% came out to back Democrats in 2010. The drop-off in the Democratic vote was even more severe among Post-Moderns, 65% of whom backed Obama, but just 43% of whom came to the polls for Democrats in 2010.

Pew studied folks identified as Solid Liberals, whom you could also call "strong partisan Democrats," albeit 24 percent of this group identify themselves as independents who lean Democrat. There was no drop in turnout among this group in 2010. Where there was significant drop, however, is what Pew calls the "New Coalition" Dems (moderates & Dem leaners) and the Post-Moderns (youth). Of those "New Coalition" Dems, fully 42 percent of them identify as independents. We didn't lose in 2010 because we lost independents. We lost 2010 because our independent leaners and young folks didn't vote, while Republican leaning independents turned out in droves. Keep in mind, the enthusiasm gap reported on this site in 2009 was most prevalent in political typology groups most identified with President Obama's winning coalition in 2008.

Step back. Look at the big picture. We need to win independents in 2012. But don't make the mistake of believing that these are folks we need to "win back." We didn't lose them. They just didn't see anything worth making a trip to the voting both for. We need them to come back. What will motivate these guys to come back? The answers may surprise you:

  • 65% of New Coalition Dems favor bigger government providing more services. Just 19% want it smaller providing less. For partisan liberals the breakdown is 74-17.
  • Only 36% of New Coalition Dems say the government "cares what people like me think." 58% say it doesn't. Liberals? 36-59.
  • 70% of partisan liberals say they like politicians who make compromises, but only 35% of New Coalition Dems do. 59% of New Coalition Dems say they like politicians who "stick to their positions."
  • 90% of partisan liberals approve of President Obama. 83% of New Coalition Dems do. 95% of partisan liberals say he should be re-elected. 75% of New Coalition Dems agree.

President Obama has strong support across the board from Democratic groups. He won't have any problem with getting liberals to come out and vote. They did in 2008 in the same numbers in 2010. The key folks he has to get to the polls, quite frankly, are his own base. As for the independents who make up a big part of that coalition, what they want is stronger government action and a government that cares about them. Exactly the sorts of things that motivate strong Democratic liberals. These independent voters aren't political weathervanes ... blowing with the prevailing wind. They have definite positions that align very closely with those of the party base, but they want their government to deliver. You want them to come to the polls? Implement policies that rally the base.

What should those policies center around? Pew:

That's right. Among solid liberals, a full 46 percent said jobs is #1, and 19 percent said the deficit. Among those independent-leaning Democrats, those New Coalition Dems? Forty-two percent said jobs, and 12 percent said the deficit. That's right. They are less concerned about the deficit than liberals. The only folks solidly concerned about the deficit are conservatives and libertarians. I don't think the president has any chance to those over no matter what he does.

So, if you're sitting in the White House plotting a political strategy to get independents to the polls, would you take action on jobs, or would you take action on the deficit?

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