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Morning Jay: Why Romney Is Likely to Win

6:00 AM, Nov 2, 2012 • By JAY COST
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This has led to the rising power of the independent vote. And its effects are all around us, if we only care to look.

From 1932 to 1980, the Democrats had unified control of the Congress for all but four years. That is an extraordinary level of dominance, unprecedented in American history, and speaks to the overwhelming advantage the Democrats had due to the Great Depression. But since then, the Democratic edge has collapsed, the Republicans have drawn to parity, and now we see control of Congress regularly swing back and forth. The reason is simple: Independent voters hold the keys to Capitol Hill.

The same goes for the presidency. Between 1932 and 1980 Democrats won eight of twelve presidential elections because the country was simply more Democratic. All four of the Republican victories came under unique circumstances, be it a war hero or a crack in the Democratic coalition. But since 1980, Republicans have won four presidential elections to the Democrats three, with one being a virtual tie. What’s more, the Perot phenomenon of 1992 remains a testament to the power of the independent vote.

So when I look at 2012, I see Mitt Romney with a lead among independents in almost every poll. But there is more than that. This is a president who lost the support of independent voters nearly three years ago when he and his allies in Congress passed a health care bill the independents did not want. I have watched and waited to see if independents would return to the president’s fold, but they have not. And the hour is very, very late.

Is it possible to win a presidential election while losing the independent vote? Sure. The independents basically split down the middle in 2000 and 2004, which left the outcome up to the relative strengths of the two party bases. But that is not what I see right now. Instead, I see a Romney margin among independents that ranges between 5 and 10 points. Prior to the 1980s, I could see the Democrats overcoming that, but not in 2012.

Plenty on the other side think 2008 is the exception to this trend, a sign of the emerging liberal majority, which the left has been waiting for ever since Adlai Stevenson's candidacy in 1952. But they misinterpret 2008: the Democratic share of the vote that year was right within its historical track of the high-30s. What differed was a drop in Republican identification from the mid-30s to the low-30s.

Does anybody really expect that to persist this year? Of course not.

This means we will probably be back to a slender divide between the two parties, narrowed even more by greater Republican loyalty. In all likelihood, white Democrats from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico will defect from their own party’s ticket in droves. These children and grand children of FDR’s core backers will support Mitt Romney overwhelmingly, so a nominal 3 to 4 point Democratic identification edge over the GOP will shrink to 1 or 2 points, meaning that independents will determine the outcome, just as they have basically for the last 32 years.

Again, this is a different approach than the poll mavens will offer. They are taking data at face value, running simulations off it, and generating probability estimates. That is not what this is, and it should not be interpreted as such. I am not willing to take polls at face value anymore. I am more interested in connecting the polls to history and the long-run structure of American politics, and when I do that I see a Romney victory. 

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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