Over the last 50 years, we have seen a remarkable transformation of the American electorate. The percentage of people identifying as Democrats has been cut nearly in half – from 51 percent in 1961 to 30 percent in 2011. Republicans have seen some gains from this, but the biggest jump has been in the number of people who identify with neither party, which according to the most recent Gallup poll is 46 percent.
It is this group of independents that has more or less determined elections over the last 30 years. Democratic strategists and their friends in the media trumpeted Obama’s 2008 victory as a sign of the “emerging Democratic majority,” but in reality the president’s victory hinged above all on the swing of the independent vote.
This helps explain why Obama’s numbers in the public opinion polls have dropped substantially, even though he still retains strong support from the Democratic base. This is not 1961. Democrats do not make up a majority of the country, far from it. Instead, independents hold the balance of power, and Obama is doing terribly with them. In the latest Gallup poll, his standing is an anemic 35 percent.
What would happen to the president if he were to win only 35 percent of independent voters next year? He would lose. And it would not be close.
To appreciate this, let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Suppose that the same percentage of Republicans, Democrats, and independents turn out in every state in 2012 as happened in 2008. Let’s also suppose that Obama does as well with Republicans and Democrats, but with independents he suffers a 17 percentage point decline in every state (which is in keeping with his dropping from 52 percent support among independents on Election Day 2008 to 35 percent today). What would that election look like?
It would look a lot like the 2004 election. The Republican would win about 50.5 percent of the vote, while Obama would take about 48 percent. The Electoral College would also look similar:
This underscores the main flaw in the Democratic interpretation of 2008. Yes, the party won in part because of a surge in Democratic identifiers, but that was only part of the story. The critical factor was Obama’s decisive win among independent voters. Without them, he would have been defeated.
If the presidential election were held today, Obama would be lucky to lose by just 2 points. After all, the above map is based on the assumption that Republican and Democratic turnout is the same in 2012 as it was in 2008. The Democrats will probably not be so fortunate. In part, the enthusiasm gap that separates the two parties explains this; Republicans are excited about 2012, while Democrats are not. Another important reason has to do with the “soft partisan” vote, or those who have only loose attachments to either party. In a good year for Republicans, independents who typically support the GOP start calling themselves “Republicans” while Democratic-leaning independents might call themselves “independents.” And the reverse is true for bad Republican years. This changes the final partisan breakdown in the electorate, just as much if not more than the enthusiasm gap or party efforts to get out the vote.
If 2012 turns out to be a good Republican year, then we might see a partisan spread similar to 2004, when the two parties were evenly matched among the electorate. If we do indeed find that kind of result, and the president wins just 35 percent of the independent vote, next year will be a blowout, the likes of which we have not seen in nearly a quarter century. The Republican candidate would win a 10-point nationwide victory, and pull in close to 400 electoral votes.
This map is not a prediction -- after all, there are a lot of assumptions we have to make to create this -- but rather an exhortation for Republicans nationwide. The Democrats screwed up after 2008 by forgetting about the independent voter; the stimulus, Obamacare, and cap and trade were all tailored to appeal to core Democratic constituencies, while independents really have nothing to show for the last three years.
This mistake by the Democrats has given the GOP an opportunity, but to capitalize on it, the party must find a candidate who can articulate core Republican principles in a way that appeals to independents, and then after the 2012 election that leader must govern with an eye to maintaining the party’s support among this critical bloc. This is easier said than done: No Republican leader has managed to do this in the last 20 years, and George W. Bush’s 2004 victory was so narrow in large part because he won less than 50 percent of the independent vote.
As these maps indicate, independents hold the balance of power in American politics. Both parties have failed to win and hold them over the last decade or more, and the party that figures out how to do this will be the one to enjoy an enduring majority.