Independent voters got fed up and figuratively walked out on Republicans on Tuesday, resulting in a Democratic takeover of Congress. It’s too late to stave off this great divorce, and rekindling a romance down the road is a complicated proposition. But the first step in picking up the pieces means figuring out what went wrong.
An intellectual trap in a polarized age is the assumption that voters make a life commitment to a political party. They don’t. Some citizens — particularly independent voters — view their allegiance to Republicans or Democrats more as a temporary living arrangement, rather than a permanent marriage. This election demonstrated that while turnout and mobilizing the base in an off-year election is necessary, it’s not sufficient to win a majority.
I began to see the warning signs of this phenomenon in my polling data sometime last year. Attitudes of independents on many issues in recent years had split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. But beginning in 2005, an ominous trend for the GOP developed. A growing number of independents began to look more like Democrats on a whole host of measures. Other polling organizations, like Gallup, also saw this trend.
Why does this matter? Elections are won through an additive process, building coalitions of supporters. The theory that Republicans could maintain the majority by turning out their base has merit — the problem is what the “basis” of the word “base” is.
Looking at elections over the past several cycles it looked like the electorate was closely divided, but leaned slightly toward the GOP. That may have been true in 2002 and 2004. But that narrow majority was comprised of some partisan voters that may have made a “life commitment” to Republicans and others parked there temporarily — perfectly willing to switch if given a reason to do so. The size of those two camps — the base and the temporary residents — is hard to pinpoint, but they are no doubt distinct. Yet together they were enough to elect President Bush in 2000, re-elect him in 2004 and maintain a Republican majority since 1994. But many of these voters have now moved out of the GOP house.
The binary choice of voting — picking a Republican or Democrat — masks these differences in the electorate. Doug Sosnick, Mathew Dowd and Ron Fournier in their book, “Applebee’s America,” make a similar point. Given a binary choice and no other option in 2000, 2002 and 2004, these voters reluctantly chose the side that seemed closest to their values — and in those three cycles, many picked the Republicans. But as the authors argue, these voters “were actually part of the vast Tipping Tribe — frustrated, disenchanted voters who could easily be persuaded to switch sides in the next election.”
And over the past two years these voters began to shift away from the GOP.
Why did these voters choose to abandon the Republican Party? There are several explanations, but in one way or another they are all tied to a sense of competence. Independent voters want the governing party to “govern.” As one prominent consultant told me, this narrow, but pivotal slice of the electorate (independent voters) seeks competence and results, not excuses. After President Bush was first elected in 2000, he worked with Congress to pass tax cuts for individuals, and later passed tax rate reductions on dividends and capital gains, No Child Left Behind education reform, and Medicare modernization/prescription-drug legislation.
After Mr. Bush was re-elected in 2004, he emphasized two other problems requiring attention — in 2005, he highlighted a Social Security system headed toward bankruptcy, and this year, a broken immigration system requiring repair. In both cases the president convinced Americans we needed a fix, yet in the judgment of swing voters, a unified Republican government failed to act. Add to these difficulties the war in Iraq, the response to Katrina and a host of scandals in Congress — even if these issues were beyond the direct control of an incumbent lawmaker — and independent voters wanted to send a signal and chose a new direction, even if they are not sure where that new direction will take them.
The divorce will have lasting consequences for politics and policy-making in Washington. And certainly working toward some type of reconciliation will require hard work, humility and some fresh ideas to rekindle the romance.