This post must begin with an admission. When I watched the election results from New Jersey, Viriginia, and New York-23, I was perplexed. The media kept bleating about the Democrats' epic loss of independent voters. When they were all talking about the inevitable doom this spells for Democrats and the administration, they didn't actually examine modern polling data to find out WHO "independents" really are.
"Independent" is a self-identifying term that is usually, particularly in the media, associated with moderate voters. Democrats are liberal, Republicans are conservative, and moderates are independent. Simple, easy to understand, and wrong. Aside from a small amount of conservative Democrats and moderate to liberal Republicans, there is another problem with that assumption. The numbers just do not line up.
I have looked at two Gallup Polls from the summer to fall period, one of which tracked ideology and the other party identification. Republican identification was at 28%, but conservative identification is at 40%. Democratic idenification was at 34%, but liberal identification languished at 20%. Moderates were at 36%(4% were undecided on ideology) and 38% identified as independents. Democratic identification over the last few years has remained somewhat constant, Republican identification has tanked, and indepdendent indentification has gone way up.
What do those numbers tell us about the supposedly all-powerful "independent" voters? Assuming that there are no moderates or liberals who identify as Republicans (which is not true), there would still be at 12% of conservatives identifying as either Democrats or independent. According to a separate Gallup poll (keeping the pollster constant and hoping for consistent results)the percentage of independents identifying as conservative is up six points over the last year, roughly the difference between last year's higher Republican numbers and this year's lower ones.
In short, conservatives are bolting from Republican self-identification and moving to Independent, because they no longer associate their worldview with their party. That said, conservatives who vote still vote Republican when they are satisfied that an individual candidate is conservative (which is usually). The result is that the view of independent voters as moderate ones is being skewed toward the Republicans through conservatives who no longer identify with the party
but still vote for it.
Independent voters are no longer an accurate substitute for moderates because of the influx of reliably Republican votes into the independent category. Furthermore, the number of liberals who, if all liberals self-identified as Democrats, would still make up only roughly 60% of Democrats, the rest presumably being moderates or to a lesser degree conservatives.
It logically follows that the battle for moderates, who hold the real balance of power between the parties and ideologies in this country, is overwhelmingly skewed Democratic, with many identifying as Democrats and a still greater number leaning toward the party. Conservatives, meanwhile, are an existing, measurable, and predictable voting bloc.
This, I think, was the difference between the more accurate polling in New Jersey and Virginia and the inaccurate polling in NY-23. The conservatives were identifying with Hoffman from the beginning, and his extreme conservatism capped his support as moderates bolted to Owens. Moderates gave the Republicans their victories in NJ and VA through well-run, moderate campaigns and general anti-incumbency. They rebelled against Hoffman, and I think this is indicative of a trend.
Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey, beware. The right is running from the moderates, and the moderates are returning the favor. And as I stressed in my last post, winning the moderates is the only way to effectively govern this country.