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Polarization and the Independents

An ever smaller number of swing voters will decide the presidential election.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JAY COST
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Yet the great American growth machine began to sputter around the year 2000. The recession at the beginning of the decade was relatively shallow, but recovery from it was weak, with economic growth averaging just 2.6 percent from 2002 to 2007. The most recent recovery has been even weaker, with growth of just 2.5 percent in the last two years, and this after a much more precipitous decline. 

It appears that the period of guns, butter, and low taxes is finished. Policymakers cannot promote ever greater domestic and military spending while simultaneously keeping taxes low and the deficit within reasonable limits. Hard choices must be made. And while President Obama will never admit it, he has chosen the path of least resistance for a liberal Democrat: a social welfare state that continues to expand, paid for by higher taxes. Indeed, Obamacare is the symbol of this approach. While the president and his congressional allies tried to shoehorn a $3 trillion program into a $1 trillion package, the public understood that they were massively expanding the welfare state now, with talk of paying for it through unspecified new taxes down the road. When faced with a choice between slowing the growth of the welfare state and raising taxes, Democrats chose the latter without hesitation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that President Obama has been so polarizing. For decades, Democrats have preferred greater social welfare to low taxes, so they are pleased with his policies. Republicans have preferred the opposite, so they are horrified. And the GOP nominee for 2012, whoever that may be, will undoubtedly promise to undo the Obama innovations, cutting back on the welfare state to keep taxes in line with their historical averages. Accordingly, he will have strong support from Republican voters, while Democrats will view him as the devil incarnate. Without economic growth, there is no middle ground for the two sides to occupy together, so polarization is probably the new normal.

Two points are particularly salient with respect to 2012. First, this year is not going to be like 1980: Even though the economy is extremely weak, Obama will have the near-unanimous support of the Democratic party, while Carter suffered substantial defections. This suggests that the base vote for President Obama in November is probably somewhere around 45 to 47 percent, which has been the floor performance for the Democratic party over the last quarter-century.

Second, the independent vote will be determinative. Roughly 7 to 10 percent of the public in the dead center of the electorate is not anchored by strong partisan or ideological sentiment; these are the only true swing voters left in the country. According to the latest reading from Gallup, these “pure independents” give President Obama an approval rating of just 35 percent; their lack of strong roots in either party tradition, however, suggests that neither side should take their votes for granted.

Thus, the ideal Republican nominee is a candidate who can articulate the party’s conservative worldview in a way that attracts the sliver of the electorate that is actually up for grabs. By the same token, a nominee who alienates the center is a danger in an electoral battle that will unify the Democrats around Obama. With a base vote of about 46 percent, Obama needs only to split the pure independents to be favored for a second term. As the battle for the Republican nomination continues, one question primary voters will have to ask themselves is: Which candidate can best articulate conservative principles and policies to attract, not repel, these independents?

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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