A new Pew Research Center polls find that more than ever the true battleground for elections is going to be over which party can win over independent voters — since independent voter identification and centrism are surging:
Centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion as the Obama era begins. The political values and core attitudes that the Pew Research Center has monitored since 1987 show little overall ideological movement. Republicans and Democrats are even more divided than in the past, while the growing political middle is steadfastly mixed in its beliefs about government, the free market and other values that underlie views on contemporary issues and policies. Nor are there indications of a continuation of the partisan realignment that began in the Bush years. Both political parties have lost adherents since the election and an increasing number of Americans identify as independents.
The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years. Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.
But, Pew finds, Democrats shouldn’t be chuckling too much: they’ve had a bigger erosion in independent voter support between December 2008 and April than the GOP.
And Republicans shouldn’t be chuckling about that: “this represents the lowest level of professed affiliation with the GOP in at least a quarter century. Moreover, on nearly every dimension the Republican Party is at a low ebb – from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.”
One notable finding:
By contrast, the percentage of self-described political independents has steadily climbed, on a monthly basis, from 30% last December to 39% in April. Taking an average of surveys conducted this year, 36% say they are independents, 35% are Democrats, while 23% are Republicans. On an annual basis, the only previous year when independent identification has been this high was in 1992 when Ross Perot ran a popular independent candidacy.
What does it mean? It could be a sign that if Obama flops and the GOP doesn’t give independent voters an affirmative reason to support them (just blasting Obama won’t be enough) there could be an opening for an independent candidate in 2012, even if such a candidate has the system stacked against him/her.
Pew also indicates that if you’re interested in accuracy you need to stop listening to liberals who say the country is moving towards liberalism — or conservatives who say the country is moving towards conservatism. NOT TRUE:
In fact, fewer Americans say the government has a fundamental responsibility to provide a safety net than did so two years ago, and the share supporting increased help for the needy, even if the debt increases, has declined.
Yet more broadly, the public remains conflicted about government’s role. This is abundantly clear when it comes to opinions about health care: There is overwhelming agreement (86%) that the government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible. However, nearly half (46%) say they are concerned about the government becoming too involved in health care…
And there is this danger sign for the GOP, which continues its position on social issues:
Republicans and Democrats hold increasingly divergent views about the role of government, the environment and many other issues. As the partisan divide widens, the overall course of the public’s thinking is being determined by the tilt in opinions among the growing number of independents, who have a more moderate ideological point of view.
The political values of independents are mixed and run counter to orthodox liberal and conservative thinking about government.
Meanwhile, PEW finds that the GOP hasn’t gotten much more conservative, but it has shrunk in size and it faces considerable challenges:
Its constituents are aging and do not reflect the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the general public. As was the case at the beginning of this decade, Republicans are predominantly non-Hispanic whites (88%). Among Democrats, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites has declined from 64% in 2000 to 56%, as Latinos and people from other racial backgrounds have joined the ranks of the Democrats. At the same time, the average age of Republicans increased from 45.5 to 48.3, while the average age of Democrats has remained fairly stable. For the first time in at least two decades, Republicans are older than Democrats on average.
Republicans continue to be disproportionately comprised of Southerners (39%) and white evangelical Protestants (35%). However, these figures are largely unchanged from 2004 and up only slightly since 2000 as the GOP has lost supporters across all regions and religious groups.
The bottom line it you take all of this together:
1. Neither party can take independent voters for granted.
2. The party that wins over the bulk of independent voters will likely win elections.
3. If you follow political news, it’s clear Obama is facing rumblings of disappointment on his party’s left flank, but if he moves too far to the left he could lose independent voters.
4. For the GOP to make a genuine comeback it has to move beyond Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and others who already have the adoration of the conservative base choir and talk in exclusionary, small-tent terms, and start appealing to independent and moderate voters — which suggests that telling former Secretary of State Colin Powell to go take a hike may not be the wisest strategy.
5. The GOP will want to continue to hammer on issues that make independents uneasy about Obama and the Democrats, and Obama and the Democrats will want to keep reminding voters why they turned away from the Republicans — particularly because many Republicans are now in the ranks of that growing and vital segment of voters called independent voters.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.