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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Confusion About ‘Independents’ Misleading White House?

Noam Scheiber has a New Republic article that calls attention to a misunderstanding that could spell trouble for the White House. Scheiber cites Washington Post and New York Times polls showing that President Obama is losing support among “Independents” and one major cause is rising gas prices.
Scheiber says “I don’t disagree with this, but I’d argue that the results underscore something broader: the way the White House has misunderstood independents for much of Obama’s first term.” He adds that the confusion first surfaced in White House advisers’ “impression that independents were most concerned about deficits” and a related delusion “that independents were exercised about out-of-control government spending.” Sheiber continues:

The problem with this is that it reflected a fundamental confusion about who independents were. In the book, I summarize some existing work showing that most people who call themselves independents are pretty similar to traditional partisan voters: They reliably vote Democrat or Republican and simply prefer not to state their party affiliation. The independents actually up for grabs tend to be working class whites, who base their vote first and foremost on their personal economic situation. Though many of these independents did tell pollsters they were upset about the deficit in 2010 and 2011, a slightly closer reading of the data suggested they weren’t upset about spending per se. They were upset that the spending–on the stimulus and health care–didn’t appear to have helped the economy, since unemployment was still extremely high. (I happen to disagree with them–I think the stimulus helped quite a bit–but that was undeniably their view.)
Which is to say, by focusing on deficit-reduction rather than job-creation, the White House was ignoring the problem independents were most exercised about.

Scheiber argues that the White House emphasis on solid job growth in recent months “has largely bombed among independents,” and,

…Longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that the riff in the State of the Union about recent job growth appealed to a mere 26 percent of independents. The reason, Greenberg explained, is both that such voters “have not seen these jobs or felt the effects of job creation” and that “they are also deeply concerned that these jobs are not permanent.”
Greenberg went on to note that, absent a genuine improvement in their personal bottom lines, the only reliable way to excite independents was to tout policies aimed at strengthening the middle class, which at least has the benefit of speaking to their anxieties. Given the likelihood that the economy and the unemployment rate stay about where they are between now and November–and the ever-present risk of still higher energy prices–the White House would be wise to heed his advice. That means no idle talk about deficits or the recent economic uptick, its favorite topics of the last twelve months…

As Scheiber noted above, most ‘Independents’ reliably vote Democratic or Republican, according to their leanings. But the important subset of the so-called “Independents” is the white working class, one of the largest groups of actual swing voters. As Scheiber concludes of Greenberg’s advice to focus on their concerns about economic security, “Will the White House have the presence of mind to hold that line? As I say, probably only if it’s finally thinking straight about independents.”

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