Independents Will Decide the 2012 Election

Here are three ways Obama and Romney can woo them.


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.

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  1. You should write a book with Matt about this.

    1. An excellent idea!

    2. And give it a catchy title. Maybe something like a play on words with an historical document.

      1. “The Articles of Confederation And How They Apply to the 21st Century”

        No, too long…no play on words.

        “Magna Carta? More Like Jimmeh Carter!”



        “It’s The Ten Commandments – Not The Ten Suggestions!”


        1. The Consent to Shun

  2. Thank you for this very insightful, well-thought-out article. Of course President Obama should take the advice of the libertarians. It’s great articles like this that prove, with some exceptions, why libertarianism is the dominant political theory and party in America, and their not-at-all-unproven-and-crank-like ideas are used the world over.

    1. Awww….let me guess – someone stole your sweetroll.

      1. Probably took an arrow to the knee too.

  3. 4. Start another war.

    1. I’ve suddenly lost the taste for arugula.

  4. You are a demented POS.

    I hated Bush but I would never attack his wife.

    1. Did I miss something?

      1. That comment was aimed at Suki and his link. Not at Nick G.

    2. Did Nick say something about the First Buck-toothed, big-assed FUGLY?

      1. We see no problem with the alternate term “First Yeti”.

  5. 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.

    If by “center” you mean things that both Teams agree on such as increased spending on a multitude of things, increased foreign intervention, and “fixing” the economy by enacting stifling regulations, then I agree. If you mean libertarian-ish small government ideas then please hook me up with whatever you’re smoking.

    If there is an increasing number of people that are dissatisfied with the status quo it’s not because they are centrist. It’s because they want neither Left Wing or Right Wing policies enacted, not a little of one and a little of the other.

    Besides, the bulk of the voting populace is very pleased with economic and foreign interventions, they just want their flavor of it and not the other Team’s.

    1. Also, Clinton did the “I’m a Republican, too” right after 1994. And mostly stayed there. Obama got the notice in 2010 and did nothing.

      1. Are you that big an idiot? Obama offered to cut SS/Medi and the GOP refused him.

        1. obama is such a centrist. That is why he has spent the last year throwing the race card and trying to restart the culture war.

          1. FOX News rots the brain.

            1. Tony|3.14.12 @ 5:30PM|#
              “FOX News rots the brain.”


            2. John is a Culture Warrior. He sucks Bill-O’s rank diseased little cock.

              He hates us secular rationalists.

              1. He hates us secular rationalists.

                “Us” being…?

          2. If those are your grievances with Obama, I’m pretty sure you clicked on the wrong web site.

            1. shhhhh!

              John is all about GOP cocksuckage this year….

              1. This year?

                I say good for him. At least shameless lying on behalf of a party is more practical than the nihilistic nerdy emo attitude of libertarians.

                I feel that John is one of the most honest interlocutors here. If you watch FOX and don’t retch then you must honestly believe its nonstop shilling whining bullshit.

        2. Maybe because those cuts were tied to tax increases?

          And as we all know, neither party wants to cut those sacred cows, no matter how much they moo otherwise.

          1. At a 3-1 ratio favoring cuts.

            Do you want to stave off insolvency or not?

            1. shrike|3.14.12 @ 7:16PM|#
              “At a 3-1 ratio favoring cuts.”

              Jebus, doesn’t all that spinning make you dizzy?

              1. If Obama says “dance”, I dance, bitches.

          2. Dude – the Fix is in! Big Pussy is on board!

        3. Obama has never offered to “cut” anything. And he has recoiled at every opportunity he has had to sign bills that slow the growth of spending (otherwise known in capitol hill speak as a “cut”). But heck, maybe we should give him another 4 years based on the cuts he might make. If it works for the Nobel Prize Committee…

      2. I dunno about that, he’s been pretty Republican when it comes to the wars. All he had to do was lay off the culture war bullshit, but it seems like both TEAMs are unable to let that ever go away.

        1. Keystone and off shore drilling and domestic spending. If he had agreed to roll back some domestic spending and approved Keystone, he would be killing the Republicans right now.

          His base is full of brain dead morons like Shrike. They are going to vote for him no matter what.

          1. It’s truly amazing that he didn’t try to cut or reform a single program just so he could score some brownie points with people concerned about spending. Like, it doesn’t even have to be a major program or a anyone sacred cow, just one thing would have given him a massive boost. Right now it seems that spending, in general, has become the Left’s sacred cow.

            1. He is not very politically astute. He won on a fluke in 2008. If he had worked with the Republicans in the House and the red State Dems in the Senate and cut the deficit, he could have taken away the entire reason for the Republicans running.

              1. What was the fluke?

                1. That he’s black?

                  1. this

                2. jcalton|3.14.12 @ 5:46PM|#
                  “What was the fluke?”

                  He isn’t W.

                3. What was the fluke?

                  The republicans nominated someone dumb enough to run Sarah Palin as VP.

          2. His base is full of brain dead morons like Shrike. They are going to vote for him no matter what.

            If only libertarians could win this demographic. I mean, it appears to be pretty easy to win…

        2. Every president is pro-war.

        3. Nah. Culture war is the safest topic since it’s the least measurable. Okay maybe some big-issue stuff gets into play every now and then but mostly it’s just horseshit about menorahs on courthouses or naughty rock lyrics. You can do almost nothing, achieve absolutely nothing as still claim victory.

  6. If Republicans keep talking about contraception then he won’t even have to try to win the independent vote.

    1. There is a possibility that at some point there will be nothing left of that horse but paste and then we can move on.

      1. contraceptive paste

        1. Is that what nonoxynol 9 is made of?

          1. Mmmmm…..minty!

    2. That’s just about true. Most Republicans I know love to fuck and they really love their birth control.

  7. Why will independents decide the election?

    Because committed Republicans aren’t going to vote for Obama even if the GOP candidate is an unmitigated piece of shit like Santorum, and committed Democrats are dumb enough to have Obama stickers on their cars already, because they aren’t even aware of how embarrassing that should be.

    1. The only good thing that can come out of this election is an even lower voter participation rate.

  8. You know who’s going to decide this election?



    1. Whoa, that’s crazy talk.

    2. And given their track record, that’s pretty scary.

    3. If you’ve never read this, please do so now*:

      Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they “effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.”

      * Not that we have a democracy. I’m pretty sure everyone here understands that. It’s amazing that even though people say “to the republic” in the pledge of allegiance, they don’t realize they live in one.

      1. I mean on paper.

        “to the oligarchy for which it stands” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    4. no wai

  9. If there’s anyone here in AZ, head on over to


    and donate $100 please.

    That’ll put him 14/20 for the contributions needed for matching federal election funds. There are a few other states that are also pretty close. Good chance to at least pull a couple million in the libertarian direction.

    Only the first $250 of any individual’s donation counts, which is typical government stupidity.

    1. As much as I think Gary is miles ahead of the R/Ds, we mustn’t spam.

      Mention the fact that he was an equal opportunity vetoer as Governor. He has no problem taking his own party (not that he’ll have many in office) to task.

      Mention that his policies created a stable environment for business to flourish in unafraid of what the future might bring. He speaks lightly that he didn’t create a single job as Governor.

      Mention his seeming inability to BS. That he’s held most of his positions since running for Governor. That he allows himself to be swayed by facts, and has sometimes changed positioned.

      Do share his webpage, and any relevant events like the upcoming online town hall on Monday. But engage with your audience. First rule of public speaking.

  10. Why does politics attract such douche bags? Seriously, how are these people anywhere near anything important?


    1. The FCC should punish this behavior.

    2. Why does politics attract such douche bags? Seriously, how are these people anywhere near anything important?

      Dude, you need this answered?

      I thought it was self-evident.

  11. Obama’s biggest problem is that only diehard Democrats think he’s come anywhere close to delivering on his promises. Easily 25% of the people who voted for him are hugely disappointed, and Romney isn’t scary enough to make them all Obama voters again.

    And there aren’t enough people upset by the “Romney once put a dog carrier on top of his car” scandal to make a difference, either. (Though it seems that some of my Facebook friends would rather vote for Castro because of that incident.)

    1. Romney’s dog cruelty only illustrated his aloof tendency. The guy is a fucking dartboard.

      1. It’s entirely arguable whether that was “cruelty.”

      2. I guess he’d have to start killing American citizens overseas before he developed the warm-hearted, folksy charm of Obama, eh?

    2. Honestly it might be a better idea to wait until the debates start and they start demonizing each other. If Obama can paint Romney as a rich, big business, souless jerk then he can probably galvanize enough of his dissatisfied base to vote for him.

      That’s essentially how Bush was able to get a lot of dissatisfied conservatives to vote for him in 2004 and why the GOP lost huge in 2006 when they didn’t have bogeyman to point at.

      1. Romney will look to many like a Godsend compared to the incompetent blowhard Obama. Of course much of Obama’s base will vote for him, but without the bandwagon of enthusiasm and the starstruck and hopeful independents of 2008, he’s doomed.

  12. Independents Will Decide the 2012 Election

    It’s already been decided, you fool!

    1. I’m pretty sure the media decides elections. Well, sometimes the Supreme Court…but mostly the media.

      They definitely decide who we get to vote for.

  13. Say what you want about the movie, but I always liked this speech:

    “How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutlerpresident, Barack Obama. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.”

  14. Man, how the hell does the PUSA wear cargo shorts on a golf course. No class.

    1. Nouveau riche.

  15. I’m tired of seeing Obama all over the place.

  16. First post here. I love the article and love the very moderate, centrist-y feel around the place. Also, very few insults compared to the rest of the internet political sites I’ve visited. I look forward to some very engaging discussion!

    We should get DISQUS here.

    1. Let the insulting begin!

    2. Fuck off, christfag.

      1. It seems you use Ctrl-V a lot for your posts, huh?

  17. Independents decide every election.

    1. Wait, I thought elections were bought and paid for by corporations. Now I’m confused.

      1. Independent Corporations!

  18. Personally, since Paul most likely won’t win, I’m rooting for The Big O. It will be great to see him take the fall for a century of statist warmongering and economic cronyism.

  19. Crony capitalism is rife within both parties, but Obama proved he cares the least for private property rights and individual liberty, and whose party puts the “organized” into their brand of corruption.

    1. “Obama proved he cares the least for private property rights and individual liberty,”

      That’s GREAT!

  20. I don’t care for independents- they stick a finger in the wind to see what or who to vote for

    Man up and pick a side, you self-indulgent navel-gazers

    1. I fired the last political party I belonged to because I didn’t want to have to defend their incompetence and profligate spending. They have to earn my vote. If you want to give it away for free, that’s up to you man.

    2. If you don’t pick a political party those other guys will win.

    3. I am an independent. I registered independent the first time I ever voted in 1972 and have never registered any other way. Are you saying you do not like independent voters?

    4. I am an independent. I registered independent the first time I ever voted in 1972 and have never registered any other way. Are you saying you do not like independent voters?

    5. I am an independent. I registered independent the first time I ever voted in 1972 and have never registered any other way. Are you saying you do not like independent voters?

    6. I am an independent voter. I registered independent the first time I voted in 1972. I have never registered any other way. Are you saying you do not like independent voters?

  21. looks like Ron Paul supporters are taking over some state GOP conventions, and some people are crying about it like the little girls.


    1. Ron Paul and his supporters need to learn that less government and more freedom have no place in the republican party.

  22. A whale fin or a flatworm?

  23. Unfortunately the author fails to point out that most of the independents who will decide this election are no more informed about the issues than a dead sperm and thats being generous. They know enough to be unhappy but that is the extent of it. As the election approaches they will decide who will be president based on who looks cooler on TV and who talks “intellegently”. If repubs want to win they better start having Romney take sax lessons from Bill.

    1. Dead sperm, sax and Bill, let it go man, let it go.

    2. Nah.. Mitt’s a pan flute guy all the way.. I read on the internets that he celebrates Zamphir’s entire catalog.

  24. How, if the choice is going to be between Obama and Romney, does it begin to matter, one way or the other, who independents vote for? In what possible way will the election matter at all, one way or the other?

    1. You’ll probably see the mysterious return of the anti-war Left is Romney gets elected.

      That’s about the only difference I can think of off the top of my head.

      1. sweet. i missed them. plus, i’d prefer a romney SCOTUS appointment because we already have a wise latina woman

    2. Well, I’d imagine political humorists might start being funny again.

    3. It doesn’t matter. really. A vote for a party candidate is a vote against independence. The problem is that since taking over the government in the election of 1800, political parties have made it impossible for an independent voter to run for political office by passing laws at state level that make it too difficult.

    4. Republicans and Democrats do not allow anyone else run for office. They do still allow elections involving their party candidates, which is a good thing in the present political climate because every election increases the number of independent voters. Once independent voters gain seven more percentage points, they will outnumber all political party members in the United States, and the Supreme Court will be unable to keep enforcing two-party corruption.

  25. The GOP can’t win with this group of wackadoodles. No way.

  26. I remember 1996 and Bob Dole. I feel a strange tickle at the back of my mind this year.

    1. it might be syphilis – you should get that checked

  27. Independents Will Decide the 2012 Election

    Also just in, the sky is blue, water is wet, and people breathe oxygen. Film at 11.

    I mean, really? This is the case with nearly every election, the wing nuts cancel each other out and the independents and moderates in the middle the ebb and flow to one side or the other depending on who pissed them off most recently decide the outcome.

  28. The independents still have to chose between Team Red or Team Blue. Independents and everyone else never get what they want through the political process. Best course of action is not to vote and devote your time to making yourself independent of politicians who want to mold you to their ideal.

  29. If Obama is doing the job his masters selected for him to do, then he will probably be re-elected.Presidents aren’t elected. They are selected. The Council on foreign relations had picked Hillary Clinton to be president in 2008. After meeting with Obama, it was agreed that he would be a good solider.The government knows most people don’t bother to read informative books or do their own research.Millions of citizens have be dumbed down by the corporate controlled news media for over forty years. Why think when they don’t have to. Let the Washington think-tanks think for them. They have other priorities.” It is fortunate for the governments that the masses don’t think.” Adolf Hitler.

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