Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Independents, The Suburbs, And Elections

We all know that independents comprise a huge swath of American voters. They are not closely affiliated with any major political party, and they include liberals, moderates and conservatives who are constantly "looking for something" in a candidate or issue upon which they are going to vote. Winning the independents is often the key to winning an election as amply demonstrated last week in Virginia and New Jersey. Where do most independent voters live? The suburbs.

I rarely agree with The New York Times on much of anything, but occasionally they get it largely right, despite themselves. This week token pseudo-conservative writer David Brooks discussed the independents, and was amazingly accurate. Even though his opening paragraph was a little excessive, it intrigued me and I went on to read his entire article. "Liberals and conservatives each have their own intellectual food chains. They have their own think tanks to provide arguments, politicians and pundits to amplify them, and news media outlets to deliver streams of prejudice-affirming stories." That packages liberals and conservatives a little too neatly, but it has a strong element of truth.

But his description of independents is spot-on. "Independents are herds of cats who find out what they think through a meandering process of discovery. Right now, independent voters are astonishingly volatile. Democrats did poorly in elections on Tuesday partly because of disappointed liberals who think that President Obama is moving too slowly, but mostly because of anxious suburban independents who think he is moving too fast." Whether they are becoming convinced that Obama should simply get out of the way remains to be seen, since much of Tuesday's election result can be attributed to local issues.

Independents are listening and choosing, and the clearer, more open and honest espousals of reasonable solutions are winning them over in droves. I happen to think that means a conservative message, but we can analyze this to death. The simple fact is that "middle-class suburban voters who have been trending Democratic for a decade have suddenly lurched out of the Democratic camp--and are now in play." And this is occurring without any significant change in overall party registration. Republicans who represented the more conservative view won handily (NY 23 is not a player in this discussion).

In Pennsylvania, there was an eight-point swing away from the Democrats among independents from just a year ago. In New Jersey, there was a twelve-point swing. In Virginia, there was a thirteen-point swing. And as Brooks reports it: "The most telling races this year were the suburban rebellions across the country. For example, in Westchester and Nassau counties in New York, Republican candidates came from nowhere to defeat entrenched Democratic county officials. In blue Pennsylvania, the GOP won six out of seven statewide offices."

So now the question becomes, if this is somewhat of an indicator of national races to come, and a clear reason for the suburban victories on Tuesday, why are the independent voters in the suburbs changing sides so quickly and in such large numbers? And Brooks gets that right, too. "The first thing to say is that this recession has hit the new suburbs hardest, exactly where independents are likely to live. According to a survey by the National Center for Suburban studies at Hofstra University, 76% of suburbanites say they or someone they know have lost a job in the past year. " Although economists may point to all kinds of favorable economic recovery indicators, unemployment has by far the greatest impact, and that number is growing rather than shrinking.

The truly telling (and heartening) element of the political turnaround is that voters are not (I repeat, not) looking to the government for support or solutions. This is big, with a capital B. Brooks reports: "Trust in government is at its lowest level in recent memory. Over the past year, there has been a shift to the right on issue after issue. According to Gallup (a Democratic firm, I might add), the percentage of Americans who believe that there is too much government regulation rose from 38 ppercent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2009. The percentage of Americans who want unions to have less influence rose fro 32 percent to a record 42 percent."

"Americans have moved to the right on abortion, immigration, and global warming. Over the past seven months, the number of people who say government is doing too many things better left to business has jumped from 40 percent to 48 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Only 31 percent of Americans believe that the president and Congress should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits. Sixty-two percent, twice as many, believe the president and Congress should worry more about keeping the deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover." That latter statement is an indicator of conservative long-term thinking, and is a very healthy trend among independents.

Gallup recently reported that 35 percent of actual voters now identify themselves as conservative, by far the largest self-identified group, with liberals hovering at a little more or less than 20 percent. Yet among independents, those who believe there is too much government interference in business is at an astounding 50 percent, making independents more conservative on the issue than the percentage of self-identified conservatives. As Brooks puts it: "These shifts have not occurred because conservatives and liberals have changed their minds. They haven't. The shift is among independents."

This tells us that without a significant change in political party registration, independents are not turning into Republicans, they are turning to the Republican Party for conservative solutions and conservative candidates. While a namby-pamby moderate Republican might win an election simply because of Democratic backlash, it is almost a sure thing that a conservative Republican has the edge in swing districts with large numbers of independent voters. And it's important to note that for the foreseeable future, religious altar issues are far less important than dinner table issues. No matter how important social issues may be, they are not in the forefront, and too much concentration on them without a much larger emphasis on conservative solutions for economic issues can be off-putting, confusing, and vote-losing.

Brooks has issued a clarion call which all Republican candidates should heed: "Independents support the party that seems most likely to establish a frame of stability and order, within which they can lead their lives. They can't always articulate what they want, but they withdraw from any party that threatens turmoil and risk. As always, they're looking for a safe pair of hands." Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats don't understand that. Any Republican candidate who doesn't understand that basic fact is courting disaster.


Joel Farnham said...


I agree. What I am wondering about is the calculation that most Independents are in the Middle Muddle. I disagree. If you take a line and put the Statist/socialist/communist on the left, then take put the Democrats on, then the independents, then the Republicans, then libertarians, you would have the classic design most pundits work from. I say there are three groups of independents. One group is to the left of the Democrats. The smallest group is actually between the Democrats and the Republicans. The largest groups is to the right of the Republicans.

I feel that the group to the right of the Republicans are the most volatile. They stay out when the Republicans fail to stay principled. This is the group that is the least vocal. This is the group that Republicans think are their base, but really aren't. This is the group that backed Hoffman in NY23.

The belief that the independents are only located between the Democrats and The Republicans and that the Republicans should go after them, well that is when we lose race after race.

StanH said...

Great overview Lawhawk! Though I don’t have much use for David Brooks (RINO), it seems his portrayal has validity for the Republican Party. Washington has developed a tin ear when it comes to understanding the American electorate. IMO this country is in a fluid “throw the bums out,” attitude, whoever is in power – right or left. Washington continually misreads the voter as wanting more government. When in reality we want to be left alone, or “independent,” if you will. Conservatism will attract the American voter in droves.

AndrewPrice said...

Since Carter, I've always felt that elections are Republican's to lose. If they run the right people, with a good clear, conservative message, they've won easy majorities. When they muddle the message or run an unlikable, untrustworthy candidate (like McCain), they lose.

Tennessee Jed said...

A great analysis of Brooks' analysis, Hawk. Since Republicans tend to have less outlets to get their well articulated view to a mass audience, they have to work harder.

Republicans were victims of a slow drip, drip, drip, of constant media barrage for over eight years as Andrew recently pointed out. The Bush Administration was singularly ineffective in combating it, choosing larely, to remain silent. The Obama administration has almost gone overboard the other way; to the point they are seen as incapable of taking any criticism at all.

I, and most readers of your posts, all agree the conservative message ought to be the stronger, but it must be well articulated. As the old defense attorney argument might go: "I strongly disagree that any global warming that has ocurred has been mainly man made, and I strongly disagree all Americans have a fundamental right to health care or that justice for all means economic justice. However, even if those things were true, we are too broke to afford fixing them at this time."

Unknown said...

Joel: Polls which do not take party affiliation into account consistently show that people who identify themselves as conservatives are by far the largest political group in America. That is probably true to an even greater extent among independents. Whether those independents are in a significant way "to the right of Republicans" is still unproven, though I suspect that's quite likely.

But as I have discussed before, Ronald Reagan was right on the money when he said "if they're with us 80% of the time, they're our friends." That is a cautionary tale. To reach the group of very conservative independents, Republican candidates need to be with us 80% of the time at least. That requires not only that the candidate be honest and open about his or her views, but if that candidate diverges on an issue or two, he must be able to convince the ultras that he is still the best candidate in the race.

If those independent purists are then unwilling to vote for that candidate, we face permanent Democratic majorities. "The perfect is the enemy of the good." They must act as a force to get both the most conservative and the best candidate in a Republican primary, then vote for that candidate, even if he isn't perfect, in the general election.

We also must make it clear that a "moderate" is not the same thing as a "RINO." Scuzzyfatso in NY 23 was a RINO, and got what she deserved. That was one isolated incident in a very unusual form of picking a candidate. It was a loss worth suffering, and it definitely made a point. But the point it made was move to the right, and it's a lesson for primary states, not for states with procedures like NY23's corrupt boss system.

The more conservative independents understand that a moderate-conservative Republican is still a much better choice than a liberal Democrat. In many cases, a good candidate is going to be the candidate rather than a perfect candidate. Defeat comes from unrealistic expectations.

Unknown said...

StanH: Well said. We're going to have a test of it all here in the California primaries for the governorship. We have a woman who is very liberal, a woman who is moderate, and a couple of men who are moderate-conservative to conservative in the running right now. It will be interesting to see how the electorate goes in that Republican primary. My guess, given the realities of California voting, is it will come down to the more conservative woman, or the moderate-conservative man, with conventional wisdom leaning toward the moderate-conservative man. For the foreseeable future, California is unlikely to elect a truly conservative governor, much though I wish it would.

Sometimes we just have to put reality ahead of our deepest wishes. In red states and swing states, the situation is much more favorable for genuine conservatives.

I will vote for the one candidate who is truly conservative in the primary. I don't expect him to win, but it's possible. If he loses, I will vote for the Republican winner in the general election unless it's the liberal woman (a true RINO). In which case, I simply won't cast a vote for governor. That's not just because I'm offended to my core by RINOs, but because it's not a wasted vote here. The liberal Democrat is likely to win by a substantial vote, regardless of what I do, so at least I can register my protest to the Republican Party by refusing to vote for their candidate. Maybe some day the Republicans in California (as well as the independents) will come to understand that.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I think that pretty much sums it up.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Excellent. A genuine articulate conservative in most states has the edge. "Articulate," in other words capable of getting his message across with clarity but without rancor is my kind of candidate. And a good dose of reality sure as hell doesn't hurt.

Writer X said...

I hope the RNC is listening. With the way they handled the NY23 candidates, as just one example, I still have to wonder.

I got my monthly "questionnaire" from the RNC yesterday, which is really just another way for them to ask for money. I'm sending it back with a note: No More RINOS. I won't be sending a check this time.

Unknown said...

WriterX: Two great minds. I just did the same thing. LOL

I do think the message is starting to get across. The RNC needs to support conservatives, and in NY23 I think they've come to understand that it is not genuinely their duty to support a Republican, any Republican. Some discretion must be exercised.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think you're right about the perfect being the enemy of the good. There is certainly a level at which we should not support candidates -- I certainly consider disloyalty (like endorsing a Democrat) to be unforgivable -- but we can't hold out for 100% perfect. That's just not possible, given the divergence of views on the right on key issues.

DCAlleyKat said...

A leading ingredient of this shift is the silence of the Obama administrations "transparency." Independents were listening - and waiting, they wanted to hear the arguments for O's ideology, etc. The silence was deafening. If the administration and Barack Hussein Obama truly believed - they shouldn't have had a problem revealing the truth of their agenda to the majority that gave them so much power!

Enter the catch22. Fearing the public backlash if he revealed his agenda O bet it all on his transcendency (of course) - that left the independents to seek what lies behind all that is happening, the very thing O was afraid of happened.

Now they're angry, really really really angry, at O, at Congress, and at liberals...imo, we're still in the beginning of the deluge known as 'voter's revenge.'

patti said...

independents are the middle child of america. always feeling overlooked, yet poised to stop the fun of either the oldest (rebs) or the youngest. gotta watch those middle kids, cause you never know what they're gonna do....

Unknown said...

DCAlleyKat: Well said, and accurate. Independents pay attention to what is being said and accomplished, and since Obama has accomplished very little except taxation schemes, and talks voluminously about everything except what he's up to, the independents have figured it out. They're not going to vote for socialists, and they're not going to vote for talking heads.

Unknown said...

Patti: I think you got the big issue. Independents don't take things on faith like the party faithful or the ideologues. They stop, look and listen, making sure they don't get hit by a trainload of promises, empty rhetoric and outright lies. They are a danger to any candidate who isn't open, forthright and honest about his or her goals and beliefs. For that reason, they're a danger to traditional politicians who have a record of saying one thing and doing another, and for promising things they have no intention or ability to deliver on.

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