Summer is not the only thing sliding away. When Congress returns next week, Democratic leaders will get an earful of advice from rank-and-file members about how to stop their political slippage. But it's unclear whether much can be done. That's because independent voters are the catalyst behind Democrats' falling numbers. And these Americans are on the move--away from the Democrats--due to several reasons difficult for party leaders to control.
The recent shift should shake Democrats to their core. Winning this group in American politics today is critical. People who call themselves "independents" represent about a third of the electorate. After closely dividing their votes between the two parties in 2000, 2002, and 2004, independents gave Republicans the cold shoulder in 2006, beginning a two-election cycle ice age with this critical electoral bloc. The big chill cost the GOP its congressional majority three years ago and helped elect Barack Obama president last fall.
But this summer, independents have started to thaw.
Consider some recent polling. President Obama's overall approval slumped below the magic 50 percent earlier this summer among independents, according to a Rasmussen survey. And it continues to sag, dipping under 40 percent for the first time according to the same pollster's mid-August numbers.
The generic ballot looks even worse for Democrats. They led among independents on a pivotal question (If the election were held today would you vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress?) during most of 2008, but support for the GOP jumped once Democrats controlled all levers of power following the presidential election. In the most recent Rasmussen poll, Republicans led by an overwhelming 27 points among independents.
Shifts among independents are even more dramatic at the sub-national level. Virginia, a state President Obama put into the Democratic column for the first time since 1964, is a good example. Obama prevailed narrowly among independents in the Old Dominion (49 percent to 48 percent) in 2008. But less than a year later, his approval among independents in a Public Policy Polling survey slumped to 38 percent. Obama's numbers among independents have also slumped in other key states where Democrats won last year. The same polling organization reports his numbers below 50 percent among independents in a series of summer polls in states like New Jersey, Ohio and North Carolina.
Even on an issue where Democrats historically dominate--health care--Republicans now hold a double-digit lead with independents on the question of "Which party do you trust more?" after years of lagging.
Why are these voters warming to Republicans again? Their preference for divided government is one reason. Surveys consistently show a majority of independents prefer divided government as a "check on the other party" rather than one-party control to "get things done." While many still hold out hope for the success of the Obama presidency, they get squeamish about power concentrated in the hands on one party.
Independent voters are also among the most concerned with fiscal issues such as deficits and debt. And the policies of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress provide little relief to salve these concerns. In fact, apprehension has grown throughout the year. In January, 11 percent of registered voters in the Rasmussen tracking said "fiscal issues" were most important. By August, that had risen to 18 percent. More significant, however, is how closely independents track Republicans. According to August Rasmussen data, 24 percent of Republicans and independents said fiscal issues were most important, compared to just 8 percent of Democrats. Such similarities between Republicans and independents flow through all of the 2009 Rasmussen tracking surveys.
The issue matrix that animates these swing voters has shifted. For many independents, unified Republican control of Congress and the White House led them to turn against the GOP in 2006. Obama's post-partisan promises also resonated with them two years later. But today we're back to unified government, only with the Democrats now in control. Also, much of the president's rhetoric sounds less believable now that it's been road tested. Experience trumped hope. As a result, Democrats will find it challenging to win back these voters. Independents seem determined to do whatever they can to institute balance between branches and support candidates committed to more fiscal restraint--preferences the current majority in Congress cannot fulfill. The real question for the Democrats is whether the summer slippage becomes an autumn free fall.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.