One of the things I do quite often is throw poll numbers up here. But they’re usually numbers from selected polls. You’re unlikely to see me put up numbers about what percentage of likely voters some candidate holds in an election, especially a year out. They’re essentially worthless.
But three I do find interesting and telling are polls that measure the satisfaction of voters, like the “direction of the country” polls, polls that look at voter enthusiasm for each side and finally, polls that attempt to determine the size of the independent vote pool.
Those three types of polls are usually trending polls, i.e. they measure these things at regular intervals. It is those trends that I find valuable and make it easier for me, personally, to get a handle on the mood of the voting public.
For instance, in the 2010 midterms we saw a decided shift of independents from the Democratic side to the Republican side as well as much more enthusiasm on the right than the left in those elections. The result was a resounding Republican win with them picking up around 60 seats in the House.
Today we have one of those polls from Gallup. It measures where independent voters are trending. So let’s take a look.
The first thing that strikes you is the fact that the pool of independent voters has increased:
The percentage of Americans identifying as political independents increased in 2011, as is common in a non-election year, although the 40% who did so is the highest Gallup has measured, by one percentage point. More Americans continue to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, 31% to 27%.
Did you catch that last sentence? There is a 4% difference in favor of Democrats with party identification. That’s actually an decrease for the GOP as we’ll see later on. Look at this chart from Gallup:
The key year is 2010. Note that Republicans, as mentioned did very well that year in the mid-terms but still trailed Democrats in percentage of party identification. Also note that increased identification as an independent began almost immediately after 2008, when Democrats controlled both the legislative and executive branches.
But since 2010 Democrat identification has flattened out. In fact, if you look back toward 1988 the current percentage of identification with Democrats is at what one could consider a low. But the same can be said for Republicans.
So what do the trends tell us? Well, to me they indicate a very deep dissatisfaction with both parties. And, in fact, in terms of self-identification, each party is “bottomed out” with those identifying with them being what one would consider their hard-core base. For whatever reason they unswervingly identify with one of the two parties and, if I had to guess, go to the polls and pretty much vote a straight ticket.
Looking at the numbers, however, you realize that they’re obviously not enough, within these bases, for either party to win an election. Democrats have a 4% lead in what they have to make up, but that’s not necessarily as much of an advantage as it might seem. Because it all depends on how many independents they have leaning their way as to whether they can get the required majority of voters.
How dissatisfied is the voting public with the two parties? Well, this little tidbit should give you an idea:
Gallup records from 1951-1988 — based on face-to-face interviewing — indicate that the percentage of independents was generally in the low 30% range during those years, suggesting that the proportion of independents in 2011 was the largest in at least 60 years.
So now the question is, even with that level of dissatisfaction, assuming no third party run, who do (or will) independents side with? First keep in mind that while Democrats enjoy a 4 point lead in party identification, that’s down from the 7 point lead they enjoyed in 2008.
Secondly, in 2008, Democrats enjoyed a 12 point advantage among independents, with 52% leaning Democratic compared to 40% leaning Republican. Now?
Now a virtual tie. The huge advantage that Democrats enjoyed in the last presidential race among independents has dissipated.
Of course everyone knows, or at least those who follow politics know, that the fight for the presidency will be determined by the “big middle” – those who identify as independents.
Given this chart, and despite the fact that their party identification has dropped a couple of points, it would appear that the GOP has made huge gains among independents. This is a trend I’ve been remarking on for quite some time. The 12% advantage is gone.
So now, what if anything does this tell us?
Well, it tells us that the presidential election isn’t a slam dunk on either side, but neither, at least at this point in time, is it a run-away for either side. It will be exceedingly close, no matter who ends up as the nominee for the GOP.
But I’d also say this – so far most of the blood-letting, politically speaking, has been on the Republican side with these interminable debates going on. The numbers you see above reflect one party with its nominee already decided and the other still in the midst of deciding.
So given that point, I’d have to say that being tied among independents at this point is not particularly good news for the incumbent party. Independent voters have trended away from Democrats and, for the most part, stayed away. What one has to wonder is if the tie will be broken when the GOP finally settles on a nominee and which way it will go. If I had to guess, once that is done, we’ll see another fairly significant change in “leaning” independents for one side or the other as they decide whether or not they can indeed support the nominee the GOP has named.
And that’s what is going to be interesting. Instead of talking about who can beat Obama, the GOP needs to be concerned with who can and will attract independent voters.
That will not appeal to the staunch conservatives, especially the social conservatives, because, those independents still to be influenced most likely are moderate or, as some activists like to characterize them, from the “mushy middle”. They are that 10% that don’t show up in the 45-45 tie. They are the prize.
Unfortunately, that means appealing to a group that may be just as likely to vote Democratic as Republican and less likely to be attracted to either side pushing what they consider extremist ideas.
Just a point to consider.
Meanwhile, on the right, another choice is going to have to be made. They are going to have to decide if they’re going to hold out for the perfect candidate or do what is necessary to get Barack Obama out of office. And that means some probable nose-holding and lever pulling (that’s where the enthusiasm gap comes in).
Yes, friends, 2012 promises to be a political junkie’s dream in terms of watching the politics of the day develop. Unfortunately, it promises the same sort of election we’ve had for decades – making another choice among a field of poor choices and then somehow expecting that poor (but best relatively speaking) choice to work miracles.
What was Einstein’s definition of insanity?