The Disaffected Voters Who'll Decide 2008

By Douglas E. Schoen
Sunday, February 10, 2008

It has been a totally confusing election -- and the 2008 race is only getting started.

The resurrection of John McCain, the Barack Obama insurgency, the fall (and rise) of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the rise (and fall and rise) of Mike Huckabee -- pundits, pollsters and other supposedly expert observers have largely missed them all. In fact, there's a simple reason why the chattering classes have so consistently called this election wrong. They're missing the most important dynamic of this race: the appearance of a crucially important new bloc of voters who are clamoring for bold, nonpartisan solutions and are disgusted with today's Washington politics. But the candidates themselves are missing something, too -- a bold, simple and overwhelmingly popular idea that would upend the presidential race.

Voters today aren't just fed up with the status quo; they're furious. In a Gallup poll last month, only 24 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the state of the country -- one of the lowest readings ever recorded. And it's not just George W. Bush they're mad at. Public approval ratings for the Democratic-controlled Congress are even lower than the president's. According to a 2006 poll taken by my former firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, 61 percent of voters say the two major parties are failing, and a survey last year by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed that 81 percent of voters would consider voting for an independent this year.

We don't know yet whether a credible third-party candidate will try to take advantage of these trends. (My former client, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has certainly sometimes seemed tempted.) But either way, this anger with the status quo has already had a profound, if unrecognized, impact on the race. Ultimately, it will determine who the next president will be.

So who are these angry voters? I call them "restless and anxious moderates," or RAMs. Most come from the third of the electorate that identifies itself as independent, but some Democrats and Republicans have also joined this new bloc. These voters tend to be practical, non-ideological and unabashedly results-oriented -- people such as Gary Butler, 60, who lives in Show Low, Ariz. Both parties, he says, "are way too far apart, and nobody is looking out for the good of the people."

"Address my life and the problems I face in my terms," another RAM told me. "Cut political rhetoric, cut political fighting, cut the game-playing, stop the five-point programs; just address my issues in a real-world, straightforward way."

You might think that the emergence of a potentially decisive bloc of disaffected voters would seize the attention of the two major parties. But they've been strangely oblivious to the RAMs' prodding. Consider Washington's response to the public's primary new concern, the stalling economy. While the White House and the House of Representatives quickly agreed on a stimulus package -- just the sort of common-sense action that disaffected voters appreciate -- the Senate initially balked, which delayed the relief measure. And while Congress did get its act together last week, it hadn't exactly been seized with universal recognition of the need for a quick, bipartisan accord to avoid a serious economic downturn.

Both parties, in fact, seem largely unaware that a new group of passionate and frustrated voters with a distinctive set of concerns has emerged. Instead, strategists from both parties have continued to treat independents as either "soft Democrats" or "soft Republicans." But there's nothing soft about the mood now transforming American politics. Anger at the status quo is now so intense, the desire for bipartisan cooperation so palpable, that even stalwart Democrats and Republicans are beginning to behave like independent voters. These people have already shown signs of bucking the Democratic and Republican establishments. They've turned not into soft partisans but into RAMs. And come November, this group is virtually certain to determine the winner of the presidential race.

The most immediate beneficiary of the RAMs' dissatisfaction with American politics has, of course, been Barack Obama -- as shown on Super Tuesday, when he won in a swath of red states across the country. The Illinois senator's extraordinary challenge to Hillary Clinton, the spouse and political partner of the most popular and important Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, testifies to a widespread yearning for post-partisan problem-solving, even among Democratic stalwarts.

But while Obama deserves credit for recognizing voters' yearning for nonpartisanship, he has thus far failed to engage fully with the concerns of the anxious moderates, particularly when it comes to their fears about the slumping economy. Independent and independent-minded voters desperately want a candidate with a track record as a problem-solver. In 1992, during another moment of widespread economic anxiety, Bill Clinton (my former client) masterfully offered the promise of change as well as numerous (if not bold) out-of-the-box solutions to the nation's problems. In contrast, Obama has so far offered mainly vague promises of transcendence.

His rival, Hillary Clinton, offers the opposite: a proven track record and a variety of specific policy prescriptions, without the promise of systemic, overarching change. To win, she will have to make clear her commitment to changing the "culture of Washington" and to continued bipartisan problem-solving, of the type she has pursued since she was elected to the Senate in 2000.

The desire for post-partisan problem-solving has also reordered the GOP race. Republican primary voters didn't want Ronald Reagan redux. Instead, as Sen. John McCain's surprising ascendance has shown, Republicans, too, hunger for an authentic candidate who can deliver bipartisan change and "straight talk."

But the RAMs are looking for substance, not just style. They are tough-minded pragmatists who insist on confronting the intractable problems facing the country, such as winning the war on al-Qaeda, providing affordable and accessible health care to all, developing a real environmental and energy policy, and reforming entitlements. If the Democratic candidate ignores the restless moderates' desire for cooperation and fundamental, system-wide change, she (or he) will leave the door open to McCain, or perhaps even to a pragmatic third-party alternative such as Bloomberg.

All this makes for an astonishingly volatile election. Voters are still searching for a candidate who can address all their concerns, leaving the field open for bold and unorthodox approaches. So one idea in particular springs to mind -- one that is common in many parts of the world but has never before been featured in a U.S. presidential election. With one simple promise -- to put together a coalition government and govern in an explicitly bipartisan manner -- McCain, Clinton or Obama could revolutionize American politics and upend the race.

Instead of selecting a token Cabinet member from the other party, the candidate would promise a genuine division of responsibility between the parties. The candidate would also present a general-election platform that would include approaches traditionally within the province of the other party. Imagine having major-party nominees whose platforms committed them to developing a truly bipartisan approach to ending the war in Iraq and fighting Islamist terrorism, to developing a serious energy policy and to reforming Social Security and Medicare. As the linchpin of the deal, the candidate would select a vice president from the other party, or perhaps a nonpartisan military leader.

Sounds crazy? Don't be so sure. There is at least some recent precedent for this. Remember, Sen. John F. Kerry tried hard to recruit McCain as his running mate in 2004. Had McCain agreed, Kerry would almost certainly be president today. By offering the vice presidency to a well-regarded moderate such as his old friend Joe Lieberman, McCain would go a long way to ensuring victory in November -- unless Clinton or Obama beats him to the punch.


Douglas Schoen, a pollster, is the author of "Declaring Independence." He was an adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and advised New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his 2001 and 2005 campaigns.

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