Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Role of the Independents

I was in Washington for a couple of days of meetings and yesterday heard from Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report.  Rothernberg has a deserved reputation as one of the prime election analysts.  But he made a point yesterday which I disagree with.

A key factor in this election (and indeed in the elections in 2006 and 2008) was the votes of the independents.  In 2006 and 2008 the independent voters trended heavily toward the democrats. In this election they trended heavily toward the GOP.  Rothenberg characterized the independents as "mood" voters - not much involved in the political life of the country and prone to swing based on their mood.  

There is some interesting scholarly writing on the subject.  For example there was The Myth of the Independent Voter which argued that independents are really closet liberals or conservatives, which was published about a decade ago.   From my perspective the idea that independents are motivated primarily by mood is a gross oversimplification.   In recent years in California the number of voters who are decline to state has increased to just over 20% of the electorate.   That number is rising quickly.  It is not because of those voters are increasingly moody.  Indeed, independent voters are not caught up in the day to day gossip and intrigues of political life.  But that does not mean they are inattentive.

From my perspective the trend is a reflection that an increasing fraction of voters are dissatisfied with the choices they are offered by the traditional parties.   The US is still a center right country.   Those independent voters have a mix of beliefs that are reflected in the last three elections.  The GOP's constant harping about matters which many voters thought should be outside of politics caused many of them to bolt in 2006 and 2008.  The perception that Congress was rentable through things like earmarks did not diminish that shift.  But then comes 2010, many Americans perceived that the current administration and leadership in the congress had vastly over-reached.   Government was perceived, rightly in my opinion, as getting into too many things.   The process of adopting the health care bill and the financial regulation bill was perceived as arbitrary and intrusive.

If my hypothesis is correct, the GOP will need to stay away from earmarks and work to correct the excesses of both of the major landmarks of the last two years.  If they do, there will not be a wide swing back in 2012.  If they don't and the democrats show they have recognized the overstepping they did in these last two years, we could have a swing back. It isn't that the independents are "moody" it is that they will not be drawn into the petty machinations of politics unless they feel they need to be.

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