Swing Time

Independents have always been around, but for the past 12 years they've split their votes pretty evenly between the two parties. This year, they swung. The independent vote went 57 percent to Democrats and 39 percent to Republicans—the biggest margin since the first exit polls in 1976.

By William Schneider

For years, we've been hearing that politics is all about rallying your base. It's the Karl Rove strategy: Mobilize an army of red voters and overwhelm the opposition. Forget swing voters. They're like a third sex. Who needs 'em?

Well, guess what? They're back. And they drove the outcome of the 2006 midterm. The story of the midterm election was simple: Republicans lost the center.

More and more voters are registering as independents, particularly in such fast-growing states as Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and New Hampshire. This year, nobody ignored them—not even President Bush, who said at an October 31 campaign rally, "I know there are Democrats and independents in a great state like Georgia who do not share the views of the Democratic leadership in Washington. You may not agree with Republicans on every issue either."

Independents have always been around, but for the past 12 years they had split their votes pretty evenly between the two parties. In 2004, for instance, independents voted 49 percent Democratic and 46 percent Republican in House races across the country, according to the network exit polls. Independents were swing voters who didn't swing.

This year, they swung. The independent vote went 57 percent to Democrats, 39 percent to Republicans in the exit polls. That is the biggest margin ever measured among independents since the first exit polls—in 1976.

This midterm was unusually nationalized. Voters across the country said, by 60 percent to 34 percent, that in deciding how to vote, national issues mattered more to them than local issues. And the top national issue was Iraq. Voters said they disapproved of the war in Iraq by 56 percent to 42 percent. That's almost identical to voters' assessment of President Bush's job performance: 57 percent disapproval to 43 percent approval.

The pattern held in state after state: In Virginia, disapproval of the war was 53 percent, disapproval of Bush was 52 percent. In New Jersey, disapproval of the war was 63 percent, disapproval of Bush 64 percent. Tennessee voters were divided on Iraq (50 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval) and on Bush (48 percent approval to 50 percent disapproval). The Iraq war now defines the president.

The Rhode Island Senate race produced an especially remarkable result. Rhode Island voters rejected Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee even though 63 percent of them approved of the job he was doing. Sure, 75 percent of Rhode Island voters disapproved of Bush. But Chafee is a staunch Bush critic. He didn't even vote for Bush in 2004. Chafee didn't vote for the war in Iraq either. A majority of Rhode Island voters said they strongly disapprove of the war. Among them, Chafee lost by nearly 3-to-1. "Here in Rhode Island," Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse said, "it's less about Lincoln Chafee than it is about the direction of our country and the contribution he makes to that Republican monopoly of power." In other words, national issues trumped local issues, including Chafee's popularity.

The Pennsylvania Senate race and the California governor's race provide a good contrast. In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum was soundly defeated. In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was easily re-elected. Both states were anti-Bush (62 percent disapproval in Pennsylvania, 58 percent in California) and anti-war (61 percent in Pennsylvania, 60 percent in California). Voters actually felt better about the economy in Pennsylvania (63 percent said it is "excellent" or "good") than in California (59 percent said "excellent" or "good").

But there was one big difference: Santorum lost the center. Independents in Pennsylvania voted Democratic, 72 percent to 28 percent. Schwarzenegger carried the center. California independents voted for him, 59 percent to 38 percent. Of course, it was easier for a governor in a state far from Washington to separate himself from an unpopular president and an unpopular war. But the big difference was that Santorum embraced a deeply conservative philosophy and never wavered. When Schwarzenegger opted to veer to the right in 2005, the decision blew up in his face, and he quickly moved back to reclaim the center.

Schwarzenegger did two things that Bush has never done. He acknowledged his mistakes—principally, taking on powerful public employee unions and calling a special election last year. And he changed his approach to governing, becoming much more moderate this year. Schwarzenegger is now thriving. Bush is a lame duck.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/11/swing-time/305439/