Political independents are continuing their 2010 tilt toward Republicans. The latest evidence comes from the presidential primaries, in which independents’ participation percentage is almost universally higher than in 2008. The significance of these increases could be no less significant this November than it was in the midterm elections that produced broad Republican gains.
The Republican primaries form an especially valuable electoral sample. They offer both a broad regional and candidate representation - with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich each winning at least two. While turnouts, closeness and outcomes have varied, the one thing that has not is the increased percentage of independent voters participating.
In the 18 delegate-awarding states thus far, only one - Oklahoma - has shown a decrease in independents’ participation compared with 2008.
It is hard to overstate the importance of independent voters in America’s closely divided electorate. While each party must assuredly hold its base supporters, Democrats and Republicans each comprised only 35 percent of voters in 2010, and 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively, in 2008. That means both parties need independents in order to win.
According to 2008 exit polls, independents went 51 percent to 43 percent for President Obama. In 2010, they went 56 percent to 37 percent for Republicans. As important as independents are nationally, they are even more so in the swing states. Unless independents stay home in November, their votes will determine America’s president.
Evidence from the nation’s Republican primaries indicates they are not staying home, but going Republican. In fact, voting in the Republican primaries on average is 6 percent higher than in 2008.
That’s a big difference in its own right, but an even bigger one when you consider the zero-sum nature of American politics. The increases in vote percentages of one major party usually come at the expense of the other. That means the 6 percent increase in the Republican primaries could yield an equal decrease for Democrats - a combined swing of 12 percent. That would more than have erased Democrats’ 8-percentage-point advantage among independents in 2008.
Certainly, some will argue that the increased independent participation percentage in the Republican primaries is a result of declining conservative Republican participation. However, the ongoing, crowded Republican field argues strongly against that. The expanded field offers a broad spectrum of choice - from establishment to social conservative to libertarian. It is hard to argue that Republicans aren’t participating because they lack a choice. The complaint in Republican circles has been that there are too many choices.
Will the independent participation swing for Republicans drop off? It hasn’t yet. So far, it has extended back to the 2010 midterms and this year has run through 18 primaries, over three months and across the country.
Is analyzing this uptick in independent voting in Republican primaries a perfect predictor for November? No, it is neither perfect nor predictive. But it is illustrative. It demonstrates a sustained Democratic problem and that problem’s possible political impact - an impact that was evident in 2010. It also illustrates where the general election campaign will be waged.
With Republicans’ continuing ability to attract independents, it is no wonder that Democrats want the GOP to debate social issues. Economic issues are unifying - they appeal to voters across the political spectrum. The more Republicans stay on them, the more likely they are to appeal to these crucial independent voters, whom they already are attracting.
It also means Democrats are indulging in wishful thinking if they believe Republicans won’t hold on to independents. Republicans are equally aware of independents’ drift and its proven electoral impact. The GOP has no shortage of economic and fiscal issues to raise in this election. As their importance and success over two years proves, Republicans have every incentive and ability to do so.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member.
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