The Independent Voter

An ABC News/Washington Post poll this morning focuses attention on independent voters, those who do not identify with either political party. Increasingly, this is the largest group of the electorate as partisan identification declines for both Democrats and Republicans. The bad news for John McCain is that he is splitting the independents evenly with Barack Obama at a time when the number of people calling themselves Republicans has dropped precipitously. Even though McCain enjoys the support of 90% of Republicans, and Obama, after his months-long contest with Hillary Clinton, claims the allegiance of only 80% of the Democrats, Obama still leads overall by 48% to McCain’s 42%. When I worked on a congressional campaign in 2004, many Independent voters repeated the same refrain: "I vote for the person not the party." This perfectly captures the psyche of the Independent. If the most important issue to you is the environment or health care, chances are you are a Democrat. If lower taxes or persevering in Iraq is your principle concern, you are probably a Republican. So, the Independent voter is the person who is either conflicted on the issues, or someone who does not pay sufficient attention to the issues to form a judgment upon them but tries to size up the personalities of the candidates in making a choice. The problem with the "I vote the person not the party" argument is that it is not true. You vote for both. If you vote your local Democratic congressman, you are voting to keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. If you vote for John McCain, you are voting for the pool of advisors and job-seekers drawn from the ranks of the Republican party, from which McCain will form his administration and upon whom he will rely for advice. McCain’s stellar biography is the kind of thing that makes Independent voters swoon. But, unfortunately for McCain, he is facing another formidable personality in Barack Obama and it is likely that the most significant split within the electorate this fall will not be racial or even partisan but generational. Older independent voters, more inclined to seek a candidate with experience, will break heavily for McCain and younger independent voters, more inclined to want change, will break heavily for Obama. In this morning’s poll, 50% of Independent voters said that a "new direction and new ideas" were more important than a candidate’s "strength and experience" while only 43% held the opposite. McCain’s other hurdle is that his ace in the hole – his national security expertise – is severely compromised by his association with the Iraq War. In June 2004, 52% of the voters said the war was not worth fighting while 47% said it was. Today, 63% of the voters say the war was not worth it, while only 34% think it was. On the all important issue of the economy, voters say they are more likely to trust Obama by 52% to 36%. Now we know why Hillary Clinton stayed in so long. The Democratic nomination was a prize worth having. There is a campaign that happens between now and November, so these early polls must be taken with some grains of salt. Still, John McCain’s campaign team better hope that there are several banana peels in Barack Obama’s path. Michael Sean Winters
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