Memo to the GOP: Focus on Independents

Republicans have fixated on the conservative base, and it could hurt them in 2012

Miami voting line - Hans Deryk : Reuters - banner.jpg

One of the many problems associated with Washington growing so venomously partisan over the last two decades is that everything has come to be seen as binary. Something is either "0" or "1," good or bad. And if one side looks bad, it is presumed that the other party looks better.

The debt-ceiling fight is a good example. While many of the more ideological Republicans in Congress perceive themselves as bravely standing on principle, the broader public sees them as adding to the dysfunction of a city and a process that were already screwed up.

A CBS News national survey of 810 adults conducted July 15-17 (margin of error plus or minus 4 percent) and released on Monday morning showed that only 43 percent of those polled approved of President Obama's handling of the debt-ceiling negotiations and only 31 percent approved of what Democrats in Congress have done on the issue. But that amounted to a rousing public cheer compared to the jaw-dropping 71 percent disapproval for Republicans on the issue. Only 21 percent of respondents approved of GOP efforts.

There's no particular reason that Republicans should care that only 11 percent of Democrats approved of the job they were doing (82 percent disapproved). But those who represent districts that are anything less than rock-solid Republican should worry that only 17 percent of independents approved and that 73 percent disapproved. Granted, the Democrats in Congress weren't much more popular among independents: Only 23 percent approved of their performance on the debt ceiling, and 66 percent disapproved. Independents were noticeably more supportive, however, of Obama's performance in the talks--37 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved.

Monday's New York Times quoted a self-identified conservative entrepreneur from Florida as saying, "They're all boneheads." It's a view that sounded familiar to me after a recent and highly unscientific survey of relatives, friends, and others at various functions on a recent trip to Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. It's like Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's great novel (though a horrible movie) about New York City, in which virtually every character looks bad, and readers look at almost all of them with disgust.

All of this just increases the potential for the upcoming congressional election to pivot not on party but on incumbency. After kicking the daylights out of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and then out of Democrats in 2010, it is more than a little plausible that many voters will want to kick out a bunch of incumbents from both parties next November. Putting aside the asinine public pronouncements by some Republicans, such as "reelection is the furthest thing from my mind," it's pretty clear that many GOP members of Congress are more afraid of their base than they are of independent voters. Some fear that conservative and tea party supporters will stay home.

Really? Do they actually believe that, with President Obama at the top of the ticket and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid standing to benefit if they don't vote, the hard-line conservatives will stay home?

Maybe they should consider that in last year's election, despite all the GOP's momentum, only 36 percent of those who voted called themselves Republican. That's precisely the same percentage as four years earlier, when the party was taking a beating. Republican turnout didn't budge. Democratic turnout did drop by 2 points in 2010 compared to 2006, with the independent share of the vote picking up 2 points. Turnout doesn't vary that much, and it will be up across the board in 2012, because there will be a presidential election.

Do they think that, notwithstanding Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, conservatives and tea party supporters will vote for Democrats as a protest? Oh please. No matter what, 90 to 95 percent of those who identify with a party will vote for that party's candidate for Congress. Just look at the last two wildly different midterm elections. In 2006, a lousy year for Republicans, 91 percent of voters who identified themselves as Republicans voted for the GOP candidate for Congress (93 percent of Democrats voted for the Democrat). In 2010, a great year for the GOP, 95 percent of Republicans voted for the party's candidate (and 92 percent of Democrats voted Democratic).

Yes, GOP party cohesion went up 4 percentage points in the good year over the bad year, but it was the swing by independents that made the difference. In 2006, independents were angry at President Bush, disillusioned with the Iraq war and by myriad Republican scandals. So independents voted for Democrats for Congress by an 18-point margin, 57 percent to 39 percent. Four years later, that same group of independents was unimpressed by the economic-stimulus package and opposed to Democratic initiatives like the cap-and-trade bill and health care reform. So they vented their collective spleen, voting for Republicans over Democrats, 56 percent to 38 percent--an 18-point swing in the opposite direction.

Independent voters are overwhelmingly nonideological and don't like Washington, politicians, or political parties. They hate the fighting and the sophomoric, partisan towel-snapping that is routine here. Independents are pragmatic. They just want the place to function.

In 25 years of column writing and almost 39 years of watching this town, I've seen a lot of one-term and two-term wonders passing through Congress, their names largely remembered only in back issues of The Almanac of American Politics and in political trivia contests. A disproportionate share of those mostly forgotten wonders had short careers because they obsessed about their base and ignored independent and swing voters. Democrats did it in 2009 and 2010, and Republicans are doing it now.

Image credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters