The Gravitational Pull of Independent Voters

The presidential nomination process can be bruising and divisive. The long slog through caucuses and primaries rewards candidates who can: a) survive on little more than coffee and pizza; b) spout snappy sound bites; and c) appeal to their party’s base, which usually means veering sharply right or left, depending on the candidate’s affiliation.

After the primaries, however, the nominees need to tack toward the center in order to appeal to swing voters and less dogmatic partisans on the other side. The imperative to recalibrate messages for the general election is why those contests often seem like endless accusations of flip-flopping. As a result, policy differences between the two nominees are often overshadowed.

Of course, some nominees don’t make the shift — or even try. They campaign in the primaries toward the extremes of their party and they remain there through the general election. These candidates also lose — badly. Think Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.

If only partisans could vote in primaries, the gravitational pull of independent and crossover voters wouldn’t be felt until after the conventions. However, because several states, including Iowa and New Hampshire allow independents to vote in partisan primaries, we’re already feeling their influence. 

Their impact is most pronounced in the Democrat contest. Front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton wound up third in Iowa and barely finished first in New Hampshire, edging out Senator Barack Obama there by less than three percentage points. According to the MSNBC exit poll, however, if the caucus and primary had been Democrats-only affairs, Senator Clinton would have come in second in Iowa, just one percentage point behind Senator Obama, and she would have beaten him by 11 percentage points in New Hampshire — a landslide that might have critically wounded his candidacy. It was independent voters that strengthened the Illinois Senator’s showing, keeping the nomination process in turmoil.

On the Republican side, independent voters have had less influence. That’s in part because of the impact of evangelical Christian voters and in part because Governor Mitt Romney has already tried to do a policy pirouette — and botched the attempt. His experience, however, makes clear why the less of a shift that’s required when moving from one phase of a campaign to the next, the better.

When he began his political career, former-Governor Romney positions needed to appeal to Massachusetts’s relatively liberal electorate. They did and he won.

Moving to a national playing field, Governor Romney’s laid out positions that were remarkably more conservative. Whether this reflects a genuine change of mind or calculated expediency is unimportant. The perception it is politically motivated has incurred a tremendous political cost. Among voters who claim the most important quality they look for in a candidate is “someone who says what he believes,” Governor Romney received support from only 14 percent in Iowa and 15 percent in New Hampshire. 

If the move from Massachusetts to a national stage had required a more subtle shift in position, would Governor Romney have fared better in Iowa and New Hampshire? We’ll never know, but it’s hard to argue he would have done any worse.

Independent and crossover voters will be increasingly important in the next few weeks. Senator John McCain appears to making a strong bid to topple Governor Romney in Michigan on Tuesday in large part because of his support among independents and Democrats. A loss there, the state where his father was a three-term Governor, could be fatal to Governor Romney’s candidacy.

And in California, the most delegate rich state among the 24 being contested on February 5th, decline-to-state voters may participate in the Democratic primary (but not the Republican contest). This makes the state, which has historically been very supportive of the Clintons, far more competitive than if it was a purely partisan contest. If it results in a win for Senator Obama, Senator Clinton’s campaign might never recover.

Governor Romney’s inability to make the transition from state-to-national candidate demonstrates the benefits of minimizing the need to shift policies in the first place. Which makes the possibility of a general election between Senators Obama and McCain so interesting. (While still a long shot, because of support from independents in the primary, it’s now a possibility). The two Senators have already demonstrated their appeal to swing voters. As a result their pivots toward the center would be quick, modest and relatively painless.

That, in turn, could mean flip-flops would not be the focus of the general election. Instead, attention would be on their policies and approaches to dealing with the nation’s challenges. Not only would this be a refreshing change, but if I remember my high school civics classes right, it’s what general elections are supposed to be about.

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