- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008


Capturing the hearts and minds of independent voters animates strategists for both presidential campaigns in election 2008. These unaligned Americans are always pivotal in contests for the White House. But how to define these potential voters and win their support are subjects of considerable debate.

Some believe they represent the thoughtful center of the political spectrum. After considering the left and right, they end up somewhere in the ideological middle, dissatisfied with what they consider the crass extremes of both Republican and Democratic Party partisanship. According to this view, strategic candidates should move to the center to attract independents.

But this perspective is inconsistent with research on voter behavior, which demonstrates that moving to the moderate middle might not be the ticket at all. Here’s why. First, “independents” are no monolith. If anything, they are more like a fuzzy blob than a unified bloc. As I noted in a June 23 American Survey piece, polls often bunch independents together as a cohesive whole. Yet this methodological shorthand masks large differences. These distinctions are most stark when poll results combine people who initially call themselves independents. But when these independents are asked a follow-up question, they say they “lean” toward one party or the other. Despite the “independent” label, these “leaners” often vote like partisans. In other words, many independents vote exactly like partisans, and the only thing they necessarily have in common is an aversion to that label.

So, if some independents are closet partisans, appealing to them with a non-partisan, centrist message may not be the best approach. These “leaners” — about two-thirds of the independent group — probably respond better to partisan messages from either Republicans or Democrats, depending on their orientation. University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel told me recently that an energized and enthusiastic partisan base may be the best way to attract some of these independents, particularly for Republicans facing a dwindling universe of their own partisan identifiers.

“There’s been a lot of talk this year about the shrinking Republican base, and that GOP candidates need to reach out more to independents to make up for the smaller number of self-identified Republicans. That’s true,” Mr. Gimpel said. “But a lot of political science research suggests that a big portion of independents (the “leaners”) will follow the lead of their more partisan brethren. While it seems counterintuitive, the best way to attract some independents may be through an excited and energized base,” he continued.

Independents’ political attention also raises some questions about this “move to the middle” strategy. Many surveys array voters on a seven-point scale after conducting follow-ups to the initial, “Do you consider yourself a Republican, Democrat or independent?” question. The scale includes: strong Democrat, weak Democrat, independent lean Democrat, pure independent, independent lean Republican, weak Republican, and strong Republican. Researchers have discovered a robust relationship between this partisan scale and a host of factors related to political knowledge and attention. And without exception, those in the middle — the “pure independents” — are the least knowledgeable and least attentive to politics. For example, according to the American National Election Study surveys, when asked if they consider themselves ideologically conservative, moderate or liberal, the highest-percentage response among this group is “don’t know.”

Differences in political attention have implications for wooing independent voters. Mr. Gimpel notes, “When we’re talking about true independents, figuring out how and when to reach them is the biggest challenge. In many cases they aren’t paying attention until very late in the process, and it’s unclear what persuades them in the end.” It might be a candidate’s position on a single issue or perhaps how their neighbor votes. But they seem to listen to the loudest and last voice they hear.

Wooing these “true independents” with a move-to-the-middle strategy is also at odds with research about how they think about politics. If these citizens are paying attention at all, they don’t seem to look at public policy with the same highly structured, left-right ideological framework so prevalent among political elites in America. So, what does all this teach us about independent voters? One thing is sure. We need to reconsider much of what we think we know about “who” they are and “how” they make voting decisions.

Gary Andres, who served in the first Bush administration, is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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