The Declaration of Independents

Miriel M. Thomas: A lecture on the power of swing voters has me wondering whether Mitt Romney might be exactly what the Republican Party needs in 2012.Image

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Last week, I attended the annual meeting of one of the many regional professional associations boasted by my academic discipline. One of the conference events was a luncheon featuring a keynote address by a woman named Linda Killian. She is a journalist, not a political scientist, but the organizers had invited her to discuss her most recent book, titled The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents.

It was an interesting talk. I haven’t read Killian’s book, but from her remarks, I gather that its argument is something like the following: we know that forty percent of registered American voters self-identify as independents—a greater proportion than those who affiliate with either the Democratic or Republican parties. (An interesting side note is that many registered independents choose that affiliation to their own detriment, since roughly half of states have closed presidential primaries.)

Of these, Killian estimates that about half are true swing voters, a group whose essential characteristic is their willingness to…well, swing: to split their tickets, vote for members of different parties from election to election, and generally adhere to an issue-driven rather than party-driven voting rubric. If she’s right, that means twenty percent—that’s one-fifth—of all registered voters are swing voters. Twenty percent is a lot.

Now, my first instinct is to raise an eyebrow at this number. Politics has always been a big part of my life; I went to my first protest march before I could walk, and my interest in political things never really waned. I have spent a lot of time around politically engaged people. Some of them are true-blue Democrats or dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Lots of them are registered as independents, but that’s usually a function of some strong moral or philosophical commitments that balk at elements of both parties’ platforms but end up pushing them to the same side of the aisle election after election. (Believe it or not, I know people like this whose votes end up canceling each other out—they’re not all pro-lifers who always vote red.) Very, very few of them would fit Killian’s definition of a true swing voter.

Then again, there’s undoubtedly some kind of selection bias in my personal experience, and since I haven’t read the book I can’t argue with her data. If I remember correctly, she bases the working figure of 20% on exit polling, Pew surveys, Gallup polls, and phone interviews of nonaffiliated voters, all of which sounds pretty legitimate to me.

So let’s say she’s right. Do you realize what that means? It means that the outcome of this fall’s presidential election quite possibly hinges on the way swing voters cast their ballots. Think about it: President Obama’s electoral college margin of victory in 2008 was right around 35%. His popular vote margin? Less than eight percent. The last time a presidential election was decided by more than 20% of the popular vote was Richard Nixon’s second victory, in nineteen hundred seventy-two. I bet most of the people reading this piece weren’t even born in 1972.

Of course there are some requisite caveats—independent turnout is lower than party-affiliated turnout, popular votes don’t really decide presidential elections, it depends on where the swing voters are living, blah blah blah—and Killian acknowledges all those factors. But her research focuses on voters in key swing states (Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire), and she argues that swing voters could quite possibly tip the 2012 election. And swing voters are by nature difficult to classify, though Killian sorts them into four general types, but the most basic generalization that seems to apply to the swing voters as a bloc is this: on the whole, they tend toward liberalism on social issues and conservatism when it comes to fiscal/budgetary policy.

Killian describes these voters as “moderate,” which is not the word I would choose, because it evokes a sense of unity or coherence to their views that I’m not sure is present. True moderation is internally harmonious, like a chocolate milkshake. From Killian’s description of the swing voters’ positions (and the following image is very hard-won, so please click through and consider it), they sound more like the political equivalent of Rachel Green’s trifle: half dessert, half beef sautéed with peas and onions. Quibbling over terms aside, though, I think it’s plausible to suggest that they’re the key demographic to go after in 2012.

This gets us to the interesting part, and it’s an observation I can’t take credit for—I actually happened to overhear Killian making it, during a coffee break in the afternoon following her talk—but I wanted to think it through a bit. Here’s the thing: I know very few people (either actual Republicans or Republican “leaners”) who are thrilled with the idea of Mitt Romney as the party’s 2012 nominee. But their criticism of him usually runs something like this: He’s not a true social conservative. He’s not sufficiently pro-life. He has a secret social democratic agenda. He’s from Massachusetts! (Okay, maybe I just threw that last one in for fun.)

For those who have genuine commitments to a certain understanding of the Republican project, I can understand why Romney’s ideological impurity would be troublesome. But for people whose favorite horse in the 2012 race is named Anybody Who Is Not Barack Obama, it seems like—given the contextual importance of swing voters—Romney might be a stronger candidate than people are giving him credit for being. As Killian put it, swing voters aren’t going to care that he’s changed positions. It seems to me that certain kinds of swing voters might even find Romney’s particular idiosyncrasies specifically attractive.

I’m curious about other perspectives. Do you buy Killian’s estimate of the number of true swing voters? Does it seem plausible to say that the outcome of the 2012 race will hinge on those voters? And—this is particularly interesting to me—do you think Romney might be the Republicans’ best bet for capturing their votes. Weigh in!

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