The incredible, changeable independent voter (or not)

at 08:03 AM ET, 03/15/2011

In American electoral politics, independent voters are the holy grail.

Thousands of hours are spent by political strategists and reporters (read: nerds) pouring over what makes them tick and how best to court them. (Both the Post’s Dan Balz and Fix mentor Charlie Cook have terrific recent pieces on what independents really want.)

The intensity over independents has ratcheted up in recent elections, as they have shown a propensity for wild swings — favoring Democrats by 18 points in the 2006 midterms only to support Republicans by a 19-point margin in 2010.

But, a look at exit polling data going all the way back to 1992 suggests that 2012 is far less likely to exhibit such a wide margin among independent voters as 2010 and 2006 did.

Let’s take a look at the data.

There were five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008. The largest margin for either presidential nominee among independents was eight points -- in 2008 (President Obama) and 1996 (Bill Clinton).

The 2000 and 2004 elections are more typical when it comes to independents in presidential cycles, however. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won independents by two points in 2000; four years later, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry carried them by a single point.

Taken together, the average margin among independents in those five elections is five points, with the Democratic nominee winning among that electorally critical group four of those times.

There have been five midterm elections since 1992, but there is exit polling in only four of them. (The exit polling in 2002 proved too unreliable to be cited.) The average margin in those four elections is more than 13 points, and three times — 2010, 2006 and 1994 — one party won independents by a double-digit margin, a phenomenon that has never happened in a presidential election.

So what explains the discrepancy between presidential and midterm election voting among independents?

The most obvious explanation is that most independents are not, in their hearts of hearts, genuinely independent. (Any number of poll breakdowns and studies have been dedicated to the idea that some portion of independents are essentially partisans-in-disguise. Although, for our money, the one the Post did a few years ago is the gold standard.)

While these nominal independent voters tend to swing from party to party in midterm contests where the stakes seem smaller and the media coverage is considerably less, they tend to revert to their natural partisan tendencies in the high-profile, big stakes world of presidential elections.

If that theory is right — and it makes good sense to us — that means that the true independent voters in a presidential election are not the 29 percent (or so) of people who identify themselves as such in recent exit polls, but in fact a far smaller contingent that rates in the high-single or low-double digits.

That reality means that independents are not as up for grabs as some might believe. It also puts a premium on identifying and targeting them heading into 2012. Obama, thanks to his demonstrated success among independents and what will almost certainly be a vast political organization nationwide, likely starts with an edge over whoever Republicans ultimately nominate.

Akin moves toward Senate bid: With the GOP field to face Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in flux, Rep. Todd Akin (R) is now taking a closer look at the race.

Multiple sources confirm Akin has begun making phone calls to evaluate support for a potential GOP primary campaign.

Akin previously had ruled out running for Senate. But more recently, he said he would not rule it out. And now he is actively exploring a campaign.

“I do know that he is concerned that there be a good conservative candidate that can represent the state of Missouri,” Akin spokesman Steve Taylor said. “Beyond that, the congressman has made no announcement.”

Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and former congressional candidate Ed Martin are already in the GOP primary. Former Ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner is also looking at the race.

Former senator Jim Talent and Rep. Sam Graves have both said they will not run.

Kasich struggling: Here at The Fix, we’ve been keeping a close eye on crusading governors and their budget-cutting strategies — from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) aggressive approach to Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy’s (D) more soft-spoken style.

In Ohio, newly minted Gov. John Kasich (R) has taken the Walker route, going directly at the unions and pushing for big cuts. And a new poll shows he is paying a political price — at least in the near term.

A new Ohio Poll from the University of Cincinnati shows 40 percent of Ohioans approve of the job Kasich is doing, while 47 percent disapprove.

A majority of independents (52 percent) disapprove of Kasich just four months after they helped him defeat incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D).

It should be noted, of course, that Kasich didn’t come out of that campaign unscathed. Even in winning, most polls showed his favorable and unfavorable ratings in similar territory.

Walker and Malloy have both struggled in the polls as well. A Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll recently showed Walker’s favorable number at 43 and his unfavorable at 53. Malloy, meanwhile, gets the approval of 35 percent of Connecticut in a recent Quinnipiac poll, while 40 percent disapprove.

Fixbits:

As The Fix reported last night, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has accepted the resignation of his press secretary, who was caught sending e-mails with off-color jokes to staff and supporters.

For what it’s worth, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would have to decide to run as an independent by March 2012. She’s shown no inclination to do so, of course, but she could face a tough primary. Meanwhile, one of the men running against her in that primary, tea party activist Andrew Ian Dodge, has filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission.

Mike Huckabee leads the field of potential GOP presidential candidates in Gallup’s measure of “positive intensity.” In second? Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

Newt Gingrich says he expects his opponents to use his martial infidelity against him.

New York state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin has won the Conservative Party line in the special election to replace former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) — helping her avert a Doug Hoffman-like situation. But businessman Jack Davis, who has run for the seat before as a Democrat, looks to be close to securing the “Tea Party” line.

Must-reads:

Barbour: Obama’s policies a ‘threat’ to economic future” — Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

Poll: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Afghan war isn’t worth fighting” — Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, Washington Post

 
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