Word to the Wise: Don’t Ignore Independents This Year

by Stuart Rothenberg November 1, 2006 · 11:01 PM EST

While all of us following this year’s midterms are spending most of our time talking about the GOP’s “base” problems and speculating about whether conservatives and evangelicals will stay home next month, we are missing a story that could turn out to be as big, or even bigger: independents.

Of course, fewer Americans vote in midterm elections than in presidential years, and much of the drop-off can be attributed to independents and weak partisans. Partisan voters historically make up the bulk of the midterm electorate, which is why we all pay so much attention to each party’s base voters, whether they are African Americans, conservative evangelicals, liberals or opponents of legalizing abortion.

Obviously, if conservatives and Republicans stay home on Nov. 7, it will be a long, long night for the GOP. Republican candidates in all kinds of districts would be in trouble – even if those districts gave President Bush 65 percent of the vote two years ago.

But even if Republicans turn out, GOP candidates could find themselves in hot water in dozens of districts that they ordinarily should hold. That’s because independent voters are not acting the way they normally do.

Independents may not turn out at the same rate as strong partisans in midterm elections, but for dozens of Republicans trying to hold their seats in a potentially strong Democratic wave – particularly those running in marginal districts – independents will be plentiful enough at the polls to separate winners from losers. In Connecticut, for example, independents (unaffiliated voters) constitute a plurality of all state voters.

Normally, independents break roughly evenly between the two parties. In the 2000 presidential election, independents went for then-Texas Gov. Bush over Al Gore, 47 percent to 45 percent. Four years later, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) bested Bush 49 percent to 48 percent among independents.

This year, that’s not close to being the case. “There just aren’t any independents this year,” joked one Republican strategist I talked with recently. “There are Republicans, Democrats and soft Democrats.”

In poll after poll, independents are behaving like Democrats, whether it is in their distaste for Bush and the GOP-run Congress or in their vote choice in dozens of races around the country.

Nationally, a recent Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey found a mere 33 percent of independents approving of the job Bush is doing. Those same independents favored Democrats, 49 percent to 30 percent, on the generic ballot. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found Democrats with a 9-point generic advantage among independents.

In a recent Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. survey of Ohio’s gubernatorial race, independent voters broke for Democrat Ted Strickland over Republican Ken Blackwell by an astonishing 22 points – 51 percent to 29 percent.

A recent series of Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg surveys in Senate races found the same thing. In the Virginia Senate race, Jim Webb (D) held a 9-point advantage among independents over incumbent Sen. George Allen (R). In Ohio, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), the challenger, held a 12-point lead over incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R). And in Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) held a 10-point lead over Republican Bob Corker among independents.

A rare exception was in New Jersey, where Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.’s anti-corruption, pro-change message was allowing him to split independents with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

Taking Stock of This Year’s Midterms

It’s almost over. So it’s time to see where we are, and finally to put to rest two of the questions that continue to be asked most often even though they were answered months ago, and a newer question.

Question 1. Have these midterms been nationalized, or are they about local issues?

It has been obvious for months that most voters see the upcoming elections as a referendum on Bush and on the Iraq War, which is why Democratic House candidates across the country are running as well as they are.

Does anyone really think that Democrats Nancy Boyda (Kansas’ 2nd district), Paul Hodes (New Hampshire’s 2nd) and Jerry McNerney (California’s 11th), each of whom lost badly two years ago, suddenly are doing well because of local issues? Would they have any chance of winning were it not for the national mood this time?

Republicans still are trying to localize their races so that voters see those contests less as a referendum on the president and more as a choice between GOP incumbents and the Democratic challengers. But so far that hasn’t happened to the extent that Republicans hope and need.

Question 2. Are this year’s midterm elections a referendum on President Bush?

If you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention and probably don’t even care. Of course they are about the president and his Iraq policy.

Question 3. Did the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) expand the field?

Yes, but not by a lot. Republican seats held by Foley and Reps. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and Deborah Pryce (Ohio) certainly were affected by the scandal, and the scandal undoubtedly aided the Democratic message about corruption and change. But the page scandal isn’t the reason Republicans are likely to lose the House. It just added to the GOP’s pre-existing woes.