This week's GOP convention in Tampa is an exciting occasion for party loyalists. Plenty of pomp and circumstance, interesting policy discussions and debates, and high-profile speakers are being showcased to a national audience.
Beyond the bright lights and shining faces, the convention also serves as a strategic battleground for Republicans. While certain demographic groups are relatively secure in the party's camp (i.e. fiscal and social conservatives, right-leaning libertarians, Tea Party supporters) others remain in play. In particular, there's one group that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney needs if he's going to win in November: independent voters.
According to most academic reports and studies, roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of Americans self-identify as independents. They typically reject political ideology and don't vote along party lines. Rather, they support individual candidates for office and/or appealing policy platforms from major or minor political parties. As this is a mass entity of collective thoughts rather than a pure voting block, the technique for Democrats and Republicans to win over independent voters changes every election cycle.
In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama successfully won over independent voters. The final Gallup poll (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) had Mr. Obama leading John McCain 48 percent to 43 percent, and exit-poll data had him ahead 52 percent to 44 percent. Hence, the "outsider" Democratic candidate's message of hope and change trumped the GOP's political maverick.
Can Mr. Romney succeed where Mr. McCain failed? Yes, because the political dynamic is significantly different from what it was four years ago.
For one thing, Mr. Obama isn't a political outsider any longer. The minute he stepped into the White House, everything changed. Mr. Obama learned more about the Washington political machine, dealt with foreign-policy matters, met with world leaders and dignitaries, and so forth. The president is still free to follow Franklin D. Roosevelt's lead and continue calling himself a man of the people. But the fact is that he's an integral part of the political process -- or, to put it another way -- a political insider.
Additionally, the president who constantly promotes a state of, in Sarah Palin's words, "hopey changey" really has a leadership style that's wishy-washy. High taxes, huge spending measures, government bailouts, the promotion of discourse with tyrannical regimes and despots, and weak Middle East policies are just a few things that have been brought to you by the Obama White House. The prospect of another four years of further economic decline has many Americans, shall we say, hoping for change.
The independent vote is ripe for the picking. If Mr. Romney plays his cards correctly, he will be able to capture a large chunk of those voters and increase his chances of victory. The GOP convention is therefore the real starting point in regaining the lost support of independents.
How can this be accomplished? For one thing, Mr. Romney needs to play up his business credentials to the hilt. While his tenure at Bain Capital hasn't always been a public-relations winner, many independents still respect political candidates who work hard and succeed in the private sector. Hence, Mr. Romney's support for reduced personal and corporate taxes, trade liberalization and firm opposition to government bailouts will enhance his stature as a fiscally conservative president-in-waiting. The more discussion about limited government and free-market thinking in his speech, the better.
Mr. Romney's firm support for Israel and opposition to terrorism also will appeal to many independents who think Mr. Obama has been weak in those areas. While it's true some independents are opposed to a stronger military and a tougher line on international matters, most respect patriotic leaders who are willing to defend domestic and global safety and security. A strong leader who supports liberty, democracy and freedom at all costs will make independents notice.
Meanwhile, Mr. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, also has some strong advantages among independents. His youth and energetic approach to politics work heavily in his favor (as it did for Mr. Obama in 2008) and his fierce interest in economics is a winning position. (Independents love numbers, so this is a perfect fit.) Mr. Ryan has been an excellent choice as vice-presidential candidate, and his broad-based appeal will intrigue many different demographic groups.
The independent vote likely is going to make or break the Romney-Ryan ticket. It's crucial that both men make strong pitches in Tampa to bring this voting bloc back under the Republican tent. By doing so, they will give Mr. Obama and his senior advisers something else to worry about on the lonely, winding roads of the campaign trail.
Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.