Democrats Need to Keep an Eye on Republican-Tilting Independent Voters

With polls showing the two parties neck and neck, independents could heavily influence the midterms — and they’re leaning right.

Two women vote inside a polling station on the day of a recall vote for Democratic state Sen. Angela Giron, in Pueblo, Colo., Tuesday Sept. 10, 2013. Campaigns were working to get as many voters as possible to the polls in Colorado's first legislative recalls on Tuesday, elections that tested popular support for gun limits in a state with a strong tradition embracing Second Amendment rights.  
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Sept. 23, 2013, 5 p.m.

A con­sist­ent top­ic in this column so far this year has been dis­cuss­ing what kind of elec­tion the 2014 midterm elec­tion will be and what it will be about. My the­ory has been that it could either be a con­tinu­ation of the same GOP brand and im­age prob­lems ex­hib­ited in 2012, par­tic­u­larly with wo­men, young­er, minor­ity, and self-de­scribed mod­er­ate voters, or it could fit the pat­tern of second-term midterm elec­tions since World War II, in which five out of six times, the party hold­ing the White House has got­ten clobbered in the House or Sen­ate, or both. Dur­ing second terms, a fa­tigue tends to set in. Voters tire of the sit­ting pres­id­ent, and they be­come in­creas­ingly open to change or to send­ing a mes­sage. Oth­er ana­lysts have framed the ques­tion of 2014 slightly dif­fer­ently: Will this elec­tion be a re­flec­tion of a very changed Amer­ica and a re­jec­tion of the GOP’s re­cent dir­ec­tion? Or will it be a ref­er­en­dum, in a highly pe­jor­at­ive sense, on Pres­id­ent Obama, Demo­crats, and health care re­form, as we saw in 2010? Both the­or­ies end up in es­sen­tially the same place.

Ob­vi­ously, the events of the com­ing month could very well fur­ther define the con­tours of next year’s elec­tions. Most be­lieve that if Re­pub­lic­ans play their hand badly, it will dra­mat­ic­ally in­crease the odds of the former scen­ario; some GOP strategists feel that if they can just get through the next month or so without self-in­flic­ted wounds, then neg­at­ive re­ac­tions to the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act will help steer the pub­lic their way. Polls are con­sist­ently show­ing that while more voters dis­ap­prove than ap­prove of the ACA, they don’t hate it enough to shut the gov­ern­ment down over it, al­though many in the GOP base think oth­er­wise.

One of the sur­veys I fol­low most closely is the NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, con­duc­ted jointly by Demo­crat Peter Hart and Re­pub­lic­an Bill McIn­turff, two of the very best poll­sters in the busi­ness. McIn­turff and his team at Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies re­cently did an ana­lys­is of NBC/WSJ polls, mer­ging 9,455 voters sur­veyed in 2010 in­to one group, the 7,963 in­ter­views con­duc­ted in 2012 in­to a second, and the 2,532 sur­veyed from June through this month in­to a third for com­par­is­on. The study con­tained a moun­tain of data, but what grabbed my at­ten­tion were the res­ults in each of the three groups on the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot ques­tion. While this poll ques­tion can­not pro­ject how many seats each side will win, it is a use­ful — if rough — in­dic­at­or of wheth­er the par­tis­an winds are blow­ing, and if they are, in what dir­ec­tion and with what in­tens­ity. It is im­port­ant to keep in mind, however, that the gen­er­ic-bal­lot ques­tion tends to yield res­ults that tilt about 2 points more Demo­crat­ic than the na­tion­al pop­u­lar vote has ul­ti­mately ended up, re­gard­less of who con­ducts the sur­vey or how pre­cisely poll­sters ask the ques­tion. Nev­er­the­less, it is a gen­er­ally uni­form tilt, so I just men­tally sub­tract 2 points from the Demo­crat­ic net mar­gin when ana­lyz­ing these fig­ures.

Look­ing at Hart and McIn­turff’s totals, the 2010 merged data — as would be ex­pec­ted, giv­en the very strong Re­pub­lic­an per­form­ance that Elec­tion Day — showed a GOP edge in the gen­er­ic-bal­lot test of 45 per­cent to 43 per­cent (2 points, but treat it as 4 points to ac­count for the Demo­crat­ic tilt). In 2012, a good year for Demo­crats, the party led 47 per­cent to 42 per­cent, a 5-point ad­vant­age, but again, we’ll knock it down to 3 points for the pur­poses of this ana­lys­is. With these num­bers for 2010 and 2012 in mind, how has the gen­er­ic bal­lot looked for the past al­most four months? The an­swer: Demo­crats hold a lead, 45 per­cent to 42 per­cent. Ad­jus­ted, this works out to a 1-point lead, es­sen­tially sug­gest­ing a draw at this point.

Something that might be of con­cern to Demo­crats, however, is that in this year’s data, in­de­pend­ents are tilt­ing Re­pub­lic­an by 18 points, 43 per­cent to 25 per­cent. This is even more than the 14-point edge that the GOP had in the 2010 polling (40 per­cent to 26 per­cent) and dra­mat­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from the 1-point Demo­crat­ic edge in 2012 (35 per­cent to 34 per­cent). While in­de­pend­ents tend to vote in smal­ler num­bers than they do in pres­id­en­tial years, so do some of the strongest Demo­crat­ic groups, namely minor­it­ies, youths, and, in par­tic­u­lar, young wo­men. These are the voters who made a huge dif­fer­ence for the Demo­crats in the 2008 and 2012 elec­tions. This turnout dis­par­ity between midterm and pres­id­en­tial years spells trouble for Demo­crats. They over­came that obstacle in 2006 by run­ning strongly among those in­de­pend­ents who had turned on Pres­id­ent Bush over the war in Ir­aq, among oth­er things. The forces at work are con­sid­er­ably dif­fer­ent this time around.

Over­all, these data would sug­gest that one of the key dy­nam­ics in 2014 will be which way in­de­pend­ents are go­ing and by how much. Moreover, it re­mains to be seen wheth­er Demo­crats can mo­tiv­ate those un­depend­able groups who, if they vote, cast their bal­lots by wide mar­gins for Demo­crats.

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