Appealing to ‘independents’

APPEALING TO ‘INDEPENDENTS’…. As is the norm after any Election Day, there’s plenty of What It All Means analysis this morning, most of which seems rather pointless. The day is pretty easy to summarize: Democrats won two congressional races; Republicans won two gubernatorial races; and gay rights supporters won a fight in one state while losing in another. Voters are in a foul mood, but there’s no evidence at all that yesterday’s races “send a signal to Washington,” one way or another.

That said, one of the more common takeaways this morning is the emphasis on how “independents” voted.

A key factor, as in most elections, was independents: Obama split Virginia independents with John McCain in 2008, en route to becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1964. McDonnell, though, won independents by a thumping 66-33 percent.

Corzine, too, lost independents in New Jersey by a wide margin, 60-30 percent — the reason he lost a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 10 points.

The lesson, it would seem, is that winning self-described independents is critical, and shoring up independent support in advance of the midterms will be the key goal of both parties.

Now, I can appreciate the significance of keeping an eye on how independents are leaning, but it’s worth remembering that there’s an inherent flaw in trying to appeal to this group of voters — they’re not just one group of voters.

“Independent” is a catch-all umbrella that means a lot of different things. For the media, the word tends to be synonymous with “moderate” or “centrist” — as if the right sides with Republicans, the left sides with Democrats, and the middle stays “independent.”

Except, as we talked about last month, that’s wrong. The Washington Post published a lengthy analysis of political independents in July 2007, based on a survey conducted by the Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The result was a pretty straightforward reminder: there’s an enormous amount of political diversity among independents.

Strategists and the media variously describe independents as “swing voters,” “moderates” or “centrists” who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label. […]

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

Appealing to “independents” is inherently tricky if “independents” don’t even agree with one another.

I suspect many will now advise Democrats to govern as centrists in order to maintain their appeal to this swing segment of the electorate. That’s the wrong lesson. If the majority proves itself effective in governing, delivers on a successful agenda, and highlights the ways in which the minority has given up on the mainstream, the results will take care of themselves.