After covering eight presidential and seven midterm election campaigns, I still manage to learn new things or come to view things differently. For many years, I have been fixated on independent voters as the political equivalent of the holy grail. But now I believe voters who describe themselves as moderates are certainly just as important—and perhaps more important—than those who call themselves independents.
It’s not hard to figure out why so many of us obsessed over independents for so long. In the five presidential elections from 1996 forward, the Democratic nominee has won between 85 and 92 percent of the vote of self-identified Democratic voters (averaging 88 percent), while Republicans have garnered between 81 and 93 percent of those who said they were Republicans (averaging 90 percent). Both parties have been on the higher end of those scales in the past three elections. With the decisions of so many voters seemingly cast in stone, the biggest variable seemed to be independents. While President Ford in 1976 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004 both won bare majorities of the independent voters—by 52 to 48 percent and 50 to 48 percent, respectively—up until last year, the winner of the independent vote won the election in six out of eight elections from 1976 forward.
But last year, Mitt Romney won the independent vote 50 to 45 percent, yet lost the election by almost 4 percentage points. For many avid election-watchers, if all that we knew was that Romney would carry the independent vote by 5 points, many of us would have bet on Obama losing the election. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans carried the independent vote nationally by an even wider 7 points, 51 to 44 percent, yet narrowly lost the popular vote for the House.
What has happened is that the gap between the share of voters who identify themselves as Democrats compared with those who consider themselves Republicans has grown so wide that, for the GOP, winning a majority of the independent vote nationally is necessary but no longer sufficient for winning a national popular vote. In this past election, 38 percent of voters called themselves Democrats, and just 32 percent called themselves Republicans. In 2008, it was Democrats at 39 percent and Republicans at 32 percent. Over the past five elections, only in 2004 were the two parties evenly matched at 37 percent each. In the other four elections, the Democratic advantage has been 4 points in 2000 (when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College), 5 points in 1996, 6 points in 2012, and 7 points in 2008. This is certainly one reason why Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections; generally there are more Democrats than Republicans. When the gap gets really wide, independents can’t make the difference.
Similarly, in those past five elections, Democrats have won between 81 and 89 percent of the vote of self-described liberals (averaging 86 percent), while Republicans have won between 72 and 84 percent of self-described conservatives (averaging 80 percent).
Why Republicans tend to stick together a bit more than Democrats—and why liberals tend to vote a little more for Democrats than conservatives do for Republicans—is anyone’s guess.
So if Democrats can reliably count on winning the lion’s share of the votes of Democrats and liberals while Republicans can be equally assured of the support of Republicans and conservatives, the question that arises is whether it’s independents or moderates that are decisive.
Last year, while Romney won among the 29 percent of voters who identify themselves as independents by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent, he lost among the much larger group, the 41 percent who self-describe as moderates, by 15 points, 56 to 41 percent. Though congressional Republicans carried the independent vote by 7 points, they lost the moderate vote by 16 points. While conservatives certainly have bragging rights over liberals in terms of self-identification—a 10-point edge—the fact that Republicans do so badly among the largest group, moderates, is more important.
The point of all of this is not to be dismissive of the importance of independent voters and obsessed with moderates, but to show that both of those groups matter and that either party that ignores either of those sectors does so at its own peril.
As we come out of the year-end fiscal-cliff crisis, there are other fights over the next three months that look equally challenging, if not more so. And the public-opinion fight is more likely to be won by whichever party seems to offer the message of balance that appeals to these moderate voters, who are obviously neither liberal nor conservative ideologues, and who are more pragmatic than dogmatic.
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