A raft of new polls about the presidential race drives home what everyone has always known: This election will turn on independent voters, the ever-growing plurality of Americans who refuse to sign up for Team Red or Team Blue.
According to Gallup and based on 20,000 interviews from 20 polls taken throughout 2011, "a record-high 40 percent of Americans identify as Independents." To put that in perspective, consider that self-identified Democrats roll in at a historic low of 31 percent while just 27 percent of us are willing to admit being Republicans. When the partisan leanings of independents were taken into consideration, Gallup found the nation evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with each claiming 45 percent of the electorate. How important are independents, especially the 10 percent who don't lean toward Dems or Reps? President Barack Obama's convincing win over Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008 was due in large part to his pulling 51 percent of self-identified independents to McCain's 43 percent. And Republican gains in the 2010 midterms stemmed largely from the GOP getting 55 percent of independent votes versus the Democrats pulling only 39 percent. Take it to the bank: You win any national election if you win the independent vote.
So where are Obama and his would-be Republican challengers these days? Despite the recent, high-profile flap about insurance mandates and contraception, which was widely interpreted to benefit Obama, the president's poll numbers have been sliding. A Bloomberg National Poll from March 8-11 shows Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) tied with 47 percent each among likely general election voters. Yet "among independents, whose votes will swing the election in November, 49 percent support Romney and 41 percent Obama in the survey." In a CBS News/New York Times poll of registered voters from March 7-11, Obama is basically tied with Romney (47 percent to 44 percent) while handily beating Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. When it comes to independents in the CBS News/New York Times poll, Obama's advantage over the likely nominee Romney is smaller, at 45 percent versus 43 percent.
If independent voters are the key to the presidency, what are the keys to independent voters? In its summary of 2011 attitudes toward government and political parties, Gallup concluded that the surge in independents stems from the "sluggish economy, record levels of distrust in government, and unfavorable views of both parties." Indeed, a "historic" 81 percent of Americans overall are "dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed" and 53 percent of us have negative views of the Republican Party and 55 percent of us have negative views of the Democratic Party.
Such attitudes aren't suprising. For the entire run of the 21st century so far, we've suffered at the hands of politicians whose predilection for crisis-mongering is surpassed only by ideological gymnastics last seen when Nadia Comaneci was bestriding the balance beam in the 1976 Olympics. Whether it's George W. Bush's about-face from a "humble" foreign policy and his disastrous abandonment of "free-market principles to save the free-market system" or Barack Obama's malarkey about pushing for "a net spending cut" and papier-mache commitments to civil liberties and executive-branch transparency, it hasn't been possible to take politicians at their word for a very long time.
If Barack Obama wants to win a second term and Mitt Romney, who will almost certainly be the GOP standard-bearer, wants to snag his first, here are three keys to winning independent voters.
1. The Economy, Stupids. If independents are growing because of the sorry state of the economy, then smart pols will work toward not simply improving the economy but being honest about the limits of what they can do to hasten recovery. You'd think that Mitt Romney, who touts his private-sector success as one of the main reasons to vote for him, would have some idea of how to create long-term growth in output and jobs. Or at least some idea of what he would do with the federal budget. Yet as my colleague Peter Suderman pointed out just a few days ago, the former Bain Capital bigwig fails at the simple task of saying what he would cut from the federal budget and what tax loopholes he would close. Instead, Romney invokes small-government cliches like magical words that will bring rain.
Obama is even worse when it comes to laying out anything that can pass a laugh test when it comes to the economy. Which is why in the CBS/New York Times survey, 55 percent of independents disapprove of the way he's handling the economy and 63 percent agree with the statement that "things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track." Despite self-interested testimonies that the stimulus was a smashing success (even though many supporters continue to bemoan its small size), everyone knew as soon as its key metric switched from jobs created to "jobs created or saved" that it was a joke. Obama has been promising big new plans to create jobs since before he entered the White House and his eventual delivery of that is about as believable as Senate Democrats' promises to deliver a budget ever again. What's worse, Obama has pushed legislation ranging from health care reform to energy subsidies to debt-ceiling increases to Dodd-Frank whose eventual costs are unknowable in the near term. Introducing that sort of uncertainty is no way to clear the ground for a robust and long-lived recovery.
A smart, simple, and believable economic message from either candidate—and their respective parties—would start with the frank admission that government in the end can't really do a helluva lot other than create zombie jobs. What the government can do is create a stable and predictable framework that will allow investors, employers, and workers figure out their next steps.
Speaking honestly about the limits of government intervention would also address another key concern among independents: distrust of politicians.
2. Be Even a Little Honest and Straightforward. It's probably true that voters like getting lied to, especially if the truth is pretty ugly. But the flip-flopper tag sticks to Mitt Romney for the simple reason that he's got a lot of explaining to do. This is the guy whose major accomplishment in his one term in public office was passage of a health care plan in Masschusetts that is widely and accurately portrayed as the model for ObamaCare. Forget all the nuances and qualifications and subtle and not-so-subtle changes between RomneyCare and the federal version. The plain truth is that since it was enacted, premiums under RomneyCare have increased dramatically (even if the rate of growth slowed a bit in 2010). And contrary to his claim that he never pushed an individual mandate to purchase insurance at the national level, Romney did as recently as 2009 in a USA Today op-ed. It's tough to trust a guy who is b.s.-ing about his signature accomplishment. When you add his suspiciously timed reversals on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage to immigration, Romney needs to come clean if he's going to gain the confidence of suspicious voters.
Similarly, Obama has been busy dissembling on issues large and small. Remember his denunciation of super PACs? He now embraces them. His promises of transparency? Gone. His apparent antipathy toward war and reckless foreign policy actions? Forget about it. His promise to rein in executive branch abuses of power? That one disappeared sometime before his attorney general started defending the president's right to assasinate U.S. citizens basically whenever he wants to. When it comes to the economy and federal budget, Obama has been plain awful. Just weeks before the 2008 election, he reiterated his promise to enact a "net spending cut" and his pledge that nobody making less than $250,000 a year would see their taxes increase. That's just not so and his promises to slash debt and deficits have come to naught. In his latest budget plan, Obama wants the feds to be spending $5.5 trillion in 2021, up from $3.8 trillion in fiscal 2013. His scenario anticipates deficits in each year going forward and even he acknowledges he's got no way of paying for such increases other than massive borrowing.
Is there any question why voters distrust the government when its actual and potential leaders are more full of baloney than an Oscar Mayer factory?
3. Cut Back on the Party Hackery Already. As a sitting president, Obama is the head of the Democratic Party. If Mitt Romney wants to unseat him, he's going to have become the standard bearer of the party of Lincoln. Both parties are about as inspiring as Chrysler and GM. They are tired old brands that should have gone out of business a long time ago. The GOP has long claimed to be the party of limited government and it often does argue to get the feds out of the boardroom. Yet it has never been persuasive that it wants the government out of the bedroom. And the party faithful haven't even begun to come to terms with the disaster that was the George W. Bush presidency. Bush was nothing short of a big-government disaster who shredded any and all pretense to fiscal responsibility, larded up the federal payroll with a record number of regulators, launched expensive and unnecessary entitlements, and created a whole new way to FUBAR U.S. foreign policy. His spirit lives on in House Republican leaders such as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who can't bring themselves to push for a balanced budget over the next 10 years and offer up impotent plans such as "The Pledge to America," which would do absolutely zero to stave off the fiscal reckoning that's just a few years away. All you need to know about these guys is that Boehner, in one of his big interviews after the midterms, couldn't name a single program to cut.
What the GOP leadership—and Mitt Romney—don't get is that they didn't win the 2010 midterms exactly. Voters rejected the Democrats for their wicked, wicked ways and voted in record numbers of Tea Party candidates who push for reduced spending (recall with interest that rising star Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky thanked the Tea Party on election night, not the GOP establishment that tried to block his run). Romney's rallying cry about Obama breaking the bank while bitching about the size of the U.S. Navy and ignoring the 70 percent increase (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in defense spending between 2001 and 2010 is the worst sort of partisan hackery. If the Department of Defense can't improve results after that bump up, it's time to shut down the whole thing. Isn't that what conservatives say about the Department of Education?
Relatively speaking, Obama is in a better position to jettison the dead weight around his neck that is the Democratic Party. As an incumbent, after all, he just needs to squeak into office a second time to enter that rare circle of automatic heroes known as two-term presidents. There is precious little he will gain from being photographed with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid between now and November. Real Clear Politics has congressional approval averaging around 12 percent, so the smart move (and probably a good move for the country) would be to push against that august body. He just might start making a play for independents and even Republican votes by moving toward the center and picking fights with his own party. The big-time unions may not like immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegals who currently live here, but about 64 percent of the public at large does (and 62 percent of independents). Obama might also push back on the greens of his party who put the kibosh on the Keystone Pipeline and rejuvenated oil and gas exploration, and break with Bush-era policies on medical marijuana raids and making Plan B contraceptives more easily available. He may have to fake it, but if he could show himself as capable of acting against his party, he just might win over independents who cast a gimlet eye his way. He might get around to asking why it is that his Democratic pals in the U.S. Senate have failed to produce and vote on a budget in years.
It may be too much to ask presidential candidates to deliver on basic things such as clarity, honesty, and consistency in thought. But if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to win over independents and hence the 2012 presidential election, that's pretty much what they need to deliver. It isn't complicated, really, but it surely will test them, probably well past their breaking points.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America.