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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

For True Independents, the Economy Matters Most

We’ve been conducting an examination this week of the much-discussed proposition that Democrats got waxed on November 2 because self-identified independents were either “moving to the right” or perceived the Obama administration and the Democratic Party as “moving to the left.”
Yesterday I presented Ruy Teixeira’s analysis of the composition of the 2010 electorate, which showed that the number of true independents was much smaller than often assumed, and that their conservatism has been exaggerated. Today I’d like to point to John Sides’ demonstration at that valuable political science site, The Monkey Cage, which provided a simple alternative explanation of why true indies “flipped” between 2006 and 2010.
Here’s his conclusion:

I’ll state this baldly: voters — independent or otherwise — do not put political process ahead of outcomes. Partnerships with the GOP might be nice if Obama wants to sign a few bills into law, but despite the lip service that voters pay to compromise, bipartisanship is far down their list of priorities.
Here’s a counterfactual to ponder. What if Obama and the Democratic Congress had rammed through a $2 trillion stimulus, failing to garner a single GOP vote, but then the stimulus somehow reduced unemployment to 6%? Do you think independents would be offended by the lack of bipartisanship?
In fact, the relationship between the economy and elections it is stronger among independents than among partisans. Partisans are happy to vote for their party under most any circumstance and often rationalize their view of the economy accordingly.

In other words, true independents tend to vote against the party in power when the economy is bad, regardless of the perceived ideology or partisanship of the party in power. It happened in 2006 and it happened again in 2010. Arguing, as some have done, that the answer for Democrats is to “move to the center” and find some way to work with Republicans makes sense only if such steps contribute to an improvement in the performance of the economy. If they don’t, then it’s not the right direction to take, particularly if you consider the costs in terms of sacrificing progressive policy goals and making the Democratic elements of the electorate unhappy precisely on the eve of the cycle when they can be expected to return to the polls.

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