By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 4:52 PM
Of all the problems Democrats face this fall, none may be more challenging than trying to win back the support of independent voters.
President Obama has been going backward with independents for more than a year, and the Democrats stand to suffer the effects in the November elections. The Gallup organization reported this week that just 38 percent of independents now approve of the job Obama is doing, the lowest point in his presidency and down from 56 percent a year ago.
Top Democratic strategists are gloomy enough about the prospect of turning those voters around quickly that they believe the more important priority for the next four months is to maximize turnout among the new voters who backed Obama in 2008. Those new voters may be receptive to partisan appeals. Whether that will help with independents is another question.
What caused the defection of a group that stood solidly with the Democrats in 2008, as well as in 2006, when the party was returned to power in Congress? The factors include dissatisfaction with the economy, a rebellion against the president's agenda and disappointment that Obama hasn't delivered on his campaign promises to change the culture of Washington.
John Weaver, a Republican strategist, pointed to the weak economy as the main cause of Obama's problem with independents. "We have nearly 10 percent unemployment, and the broad middle of the body politic has lost faith in Obama's ability, or focus, in dealing with job creation and the economy," Weaver said. "The president doesn't appear empathetic, though I'm sure he is, and he's allowed the debate to be defined about rising deficits and increased spending."
Jim Dyke, another Republican strategist, said other policy decisions by the president have turned off independents. "The health care law is a good example," he said. "They view it as a government expansion that will increase the deficit, and they are uncertain how it will impact their health care services [and] coverage. They don't believe that the stimulus package has created private sector jobs."
"This is not a liberal country," said Republican strategist John Feehery, "but it is now being governed by liberals in a liberal way, so it was almost a certainty that this reaction would take place."
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said that the criticism of Obama as a big-spending liberal grows out of decisions the president felt he had to make to prevent a depression. "We were forced to do things from the start to deal with this economic crisis that helped create a false narrative about spending and deficits that's had some impact on independent voters," Axelrod said. "And that's something we have to work on."
Other strategists say Obama's inability to deliver on his vision of changing Washington's culture also has cost him among independents.
"They don't feel enough change has come to Washington, and again that's just not policies," said David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager in 2008. "It's about how we operate. Is there enough transparency? How much influence do lobbyists have? This is something we actually have more control over than the economy, and I think we need to do more."
"Independent voters aren't partisans; they're pragmatists," said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. "What they really want is bipartisanship, fiscal restraint and balanced approaches to problem solving. And they tend to punish the party in power -- whether Republican or Democrat -- when they believe any of those things are too far out of balance."
During George W. Bush's presidency, independents moved toward the Democrats over the Iraq War and lack of confidence in the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress. Now the pool of independents appears to be heading in the other direction.
Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way said his organization has just completed a survey showing that 41 percent of independents now call themselves conservatives. "Independents used to be mainly moderates, but they are trending increasingly to the right," he said. "They have deep concerns about Democrats being anti-business, anti-growth and fiscally irresponsible."
Democrats argue that they can win back some of these independents by November by reminding them of what happened the last time Democrats were in power.
"Democrats just have to pull their races down out of the national atmospherics," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "As trite as it sounds, we have to make our elections into real choices . . . We have to frame this as a choice about the basic direction of the country. The Bush years and his disastrous policies and noxious politics are still plenty fresh in voters' minds."
But GOP strategists said that Democrats are fooling themselves and argued that Democratic campaigns would need to focus on conservative themes of smaller government and reduced spending to keep independent voters.
"Getting them back is unlikely," Mike Baselice, a Texas-based GOP pollster said, pointing to Republican victories in last year's gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey and the Massachusetts special Senate election in January as predictors of how independents are likely to vote in November.
"That will hold as long as the Obama administration tries to spend its way to glory," Baselice said. "So insulating themselves from even more defection will require a genuinely conservative fiscal action, or possibly a environmental position that saves jobs, instead of costing jobs."
Independents have turned against the president "because he dashed their hope," said Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant. "[He] burst their bubble. Because they have come to the conclusion that they were made a fool of, and they ain't happy about it one bit. So, they will be very hard to get back."
Obama won 52 percent of the independent vote in 2008, and Democrats in House races carried them with 51 percent. In 2006, independents stood even stronger in the Democrats' column, with 57 percent backing Democratic House candidates.
The party's goal for November will be far more modest -- to narrow the GOP's current advantage among this potentially crucial bloc. Even that will be difficult.