Mitt Romney’s debate debut of his new, centrist political persona may be no deeper than an Etch-a-Sketch drawing, but it might prove effective. After all, elections in America are won by the candidate who connects best with centrists and independents, the quintessential swing voters.
But in an important and little-noticed new trend, centrists and independents this year have changed from nearly identical to become two very different groups.
For months, the once and apparently future Massachusetts Moderate has been getting crushed by President Obama among self-identified centrist voters—trailing by about 20 points, 36 percent to 58 percent, according to the mid-September Pew Survey and and 39 percent to 57 percent according to a late September poll by ABC News and The Washington Post.
But self-identified independent voters—who now make up 40 percent of the electorate—have been evenly divided or edging toward Romney. So the mid-September Pew Survey showed independent voters breaking 44 percent to 42 percent for Obama, while the late-September ABC-Washington Post poll shows 49 percent to 45 percent for Romney. And all that was before the Denver debate.
In the past, independent and centrist voters have been broadly aligned (think of the two most successful independent politicos in office, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Senator Joe Lieberman, as well as Senate candidate Angus King in Maine). Overall, independents are closer to Republicans on economic issues, closer to Democrats on social issues and they are the least religious voter cohort overall. Not incidentally, registered independents now outnumber Democrats and Republicans in five states up the northeastern seaboard, thanks in large part to the rightward drift of the national GOP over the past decade.
But now, due to the rise of the Tea Party, an increase in the number of independent conservatives have moved that cohort slightly to the right, even as centrist voters are leaning Democratic in reaction to the rightward march of Republicans in Congress. Those underlying dynamics driving swing voters in the 2012 election helps to understand why the last debate could have an outsized impact on polls, at least over the next week.
“Independents are right-leaning voters who were angry at Republicans and Bush in the past. They will punish Republicans if they are too extreme,” says former Clinton pollster and Daily Beast contributor Doug Schoen. “And a lot of moderates are Democrats who wouldn’t go as far left as Obama. But until Tuesday’s debate, they saw Romney as a right-wing extremist.”
“What Romney did in the debate is show independents ‘I’m not a extremist—I’m a moderate fiscal conservative; That’s why he talked up bipartisanship so much,” adds Schoen. “And that’s why Obama is now trying to say that Romney was lying.”
We don’t yet have polls to confirm the impact of the first debate on the state of the race. But Schoen predicts that “you’re going to see independents swing toward Romney, at least temporarily … This election is going to come down to 100,000 to 150,000 independents and moderate voters in Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and a few other states. And if Governor Romney can consolidate a 10-point lead among independents and pull even with centrists, then he’ll win the presidency.”
That’s a big “if”—but it illustrates why these quintessential swing voters are courted by both campaigns.
There has been a fashionable attempt to diminish or dismiss the impact of independent voters in recent years. Professional partisans try to argue that there are no true independents, subdividing this plurality of the electorate into smaller groups and arguing that most independents are in effect “closet partisans.”
This ignores the fact that the ranks of independent voters have grown from 15 percent of the electorate in 1945 to 40 percent today—over the same period that the two parties have grown more ideologically and geographically polarized.
Contrary to widespread Beltway beliefs, even independent “leaners” are distinct from “weak partisans,” according to a new study by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina and co-authored by Sam Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College.
Leaning independents vary much more in their partisan leanings from election to election than weak partisans do, apparently reacting to the particular issues and candidates more than partisans, who tend to fall back on the crutch of party affiliation. Independents, according to Fiorina and Abrams, are much more likely to vote for a third party or independent candidate running for office. In other words, they are not simply “closet partisans.” They are genuinely more independent, even if their choice in many elections is limited to the Democrat or the Republican on the ballot.
Before the Denver debates, both the Romney and Obama campaigns had essentially decided that 2012 would be a play for their respective bases. That’s why Romney didn’t halt his rightward march immediately after winning his party’s nomination.
But desperation as Obama held on to a slim but sturdy lead in both national polls and in key swing states apparently convinced the Boston-based campaign to change its strategy and tack back toward the center, where Romney had begun his political career. Aided by a lackluster debate performance by the president, Romney’s re-centering will likely result in a tightening of polls and a real race for the White House.
Romney learned first hand the dangers of the Republican Party’s RINO hunts and social-issue litmus tests meant to purge centrists from its ranks. And President Obama’s decisive edge among centrists, aided by months of tying Romney to the very hard-right and unpopular Republican-led House, has been his cushion in the polls.
The bottom line is that the rule set down by legendary newspaper columnist James Reston more than a half-century ago still applies:
“The decisive battleground of American politics lies in the center and cannot be captured from either of the extremes, and any party that defies this principle does not improve its chances of national power or even effective opposition but precisely the opposite.”