Sunday, September 02, 2007

Battling for the Independent Vote in 2008

Peter Wallsten's got a nice piece up this morning at the Los Angeles Times on the shift among independent voters away from the Republican Party. In 2004, independents around the country - ensconsed in their "exurban" enclaves - joined more conservative partisans in sending George W. Bush back to Washington.

This time around, these same voters are likely to do a 180 degree political turn, perhaps boosting Democratic chances for securing the White House in 2008:

Unaffiliated voters, who split evenly between Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004, are now looking more favorably at the Democratic Party, a reaction to Bush's slide in the polls, the U.S. struggle in Iraq and other disappointments with GOP leadership.

It is a dramatic political development in such a closely divided electorate, and one that is likely to paint a different Electoral College map that for the last two elections was shaded Republican red in the heartland and the South, and Democratic blue in the coastal West, the Upper Midwest and the Northeast.

Strategists in both major parties believe the shift among independents was crucial to last year's Democratic sweep of congressional and state races in a number of traditionally Republican states, such as Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Ohio....

Strategists agree that the shift foreshadows a far more complicated calculus as next year's presidential election unfolds. Already, both major parties are examining ways to lure the increasingly important constituency, which though losing faith in Bush, is not enthusiastic about the Democratic Party. At stake are the White House and control of Congress, with competitive Senate races expected in Colorado as well as in Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia -- all with heavy concentrations of independent voters.

"These independents are not marching into the Democratic Party and declaring themselves Democrats, but the change is in the tilt," said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "They are definitely leaning toward the Democrats."

Polls show that the movement among independents is a broad phenomenon.
It's hard to disagree with most of the analysis, although it might be worth it to take a good look at the Pew survey's sampling techniques and question items.

That said, one basic issue facing the electorate is the question of competence, especially as it relates to the war and national security policy. When it comes to pulling the lever in the voting booth in 2008, most Americans would likely be little influenced by overarching theories of democracy promotion or neoconservative ideology. Had the Rumsfeld Pentagon - and not to mention the military's general staff - been better prepared for post-conflict stablization in Iraq, and had we perhaps sent more troops for the invasion in 2003, our deployment might not have descended into unrelievable destruction and nihilist violence. This long deployment is testing even some arch conservatives. It's unlikely that those sitting on the fence would be unaffected.

Of course, the administration's early mistakes in Iraq have been internalized by those in the national security policymaking community; and now progress in Iraq is developing apace. Yet, the average voter is likely tired of the GOP scandals, and the roiling of the ecomomy and housing market must be putting quite a few voters on edge.

This opening has the Democrats salivating at their prospects. It's an opportunity that's driven the hardcore antiwar establishment into a frenzy, as well.

But there's still time for the GOP. The closeness of past presidential elections has shown that campaigns matters. There's no reason to expect 2008 to be any different. Plus, should Hillary Clinton win the nomination, her negative poll numbers remain high, a situation likely to be especially true of independents who lean toward Republican candidates.

Thus, it's wise for people to hold back a bit, and take all of this early polling and journalistic speculation with a couple of grains of salt. We've got a long way yet until November 2008. A lot could happen in the interim. Improvement in Iraq, or the Democrats' own Larry Craig scandal, might help persuade voters that
the GOP might not be such a bad bet after all.

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