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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Don’t Sweat Independents So Much

Michael Hais has an interesting myth-buster, “Democrats, Not Independents or Republicans, Will Decide Who Wins in 2010 and Beyond” at ndn.org. Hais, a fellow with the New Democratic Network and the New Policy Institute, reasons,

Like the constant buzz of the vuvuzelas during the World Cup, leading members of the inside-the-Beltway punditry like Chris Cilliza and Chuck Todd have generated an ever louder chorus of warnings recently that “angry” independent voters will determine the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections and, in so doing, threaten the Democratic Party’s current congressional majorities.
Actually, however, it is not what independent-or even Republican-voters do that will determine what happens in this November’s elections. It is what Democrats do, or perhaps not do, that will be decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, a significantly greater number of voters now identify with or lean to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. Second, only a relatively small number of politically uninvolved and disinterested voters are independents that are completely unattached to either of the parties. As a result, the big election story in 2010 will be the extent to which the large plurality of Americans who call themselves Democrats shows up at the polls this fall, and not the voting preferences of unaffiliated independents or Republicans.

In stark contrast to 1994, when a major poll indicated that Dems and the GOP each had 44 percent party i.d. support from the public,

This year…the Democratic Party holds a party identification advantage over the Republicans. In a June national survey conducted for NDN by highly regarded market research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, 47% of voting age Americans identified with or leaned to the Democratic Party, well above the 33% who identified with or leaned to the Republican Party and the 19% who claimed to be unaffiliated independents. Even among registered voters the Democratic advantage over the GOP was 11 percentage points (47% vs. 36% with unaffiliated independents dropping to 17%). These numbers were replicated in an early July Pew survey showing the Democrats with a 49% to 42% party ID lead over the Republicans among registered voters.

So how do these favorable identification sympathies square with voting intentions?

As is the case in virtually every U.S. election, almost all of those who identify with or lean to a party plan to vote for the candidates of that party this coming November. In the NDN poll, about 95% of both Democratic and Republican identifiers who have made a choice say they expect to vote this fall for the congressional candidate of the party with which they identify. Meanwhile, among the presumably decisive independents, almost two-thirds (61%) are as yet undecided in the race for Congress. The remainder is split almost evenly between the two parties, with 21% preferring the Republicans and 18% the Democrats.

Hais concedes that the GOP does have an edge in voter registration among the polled identifiers, and in measures of enthusiasm for midterm participation — Republicans have an 11 percent advantage among those who say they are certain to vote. He applauds the DNC decision to budget $50 million this year to energize turnout among “first time voters” — young voters, African-Americans, Latinos and single women.
He also advises against Dems embracing a centrist timidity, since polls indicate strong support for progressive policies:

Democrats also need to resist advice to turn to the right as some pundits suggest. Conservative columnist, George Will, is certainly correct in noting that the Democratic disadvantage this year in voter enthusiasm and commitment could hurt the party in November. But his assertion that the lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters stems from their party’s being “at odds with an increasingly center-right country,” is challenged by recent poll results.
The NDN survey portrays a country that is anything but center-right. A solid majority of Americans prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy (54%), rather than a government that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible (31%). Three-quarters of Democrats (76%), and just over half of independents (52%), favor an activist government, while 60% of Republicans want a laissez faire approach.
Similarly, a clear plurality of the electorate (49%) wants government to ensure that all Americans have at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if it increases government spending. Only 34% supported the alternative approach of letting each person get along economically on their own, even if that means some people have a lot more than others. A solid majority of Democrats (69%), and half of independents, opt for governmental policies aimed at increasing economic equality, something that is opposed by two-thirds (65%) of Republicans.

Hais advises “highlighting, not downplaying” Dems legislative achievements under Obama. And he slams a final stake in the heart of the “Independents are the key” strategy for Dems:

Democrats would also be well advised not to base their campaign on pursuing independent voters, angry or otherwise. For one thing, the much-vaunted independents are far less likely to be registered (72%) and certain to vote (52%) than are either Republican or Democratic identifiers. While aiming at unaffiliated and uninvolved voters may be a good idea for a party that has fewer, or even the same number, of identifiers as its opponent, it is not the best strategy for a party that holds a clear party identification lead within the electorate. Doing everything that it can to mobilize its own supporters makes far more sense, and is likely to be far more effective…

If Hais is right, a stronger emphasis on leveraging Democratic resources toward turning out the base, instead of winning the support of the amorphous group called “independents,” could determine who controls Congress next year — and which Party is better positioned for 2012.

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