The Trouble with Independents

The latest edition of The New Republic has an interesting piece, titled, "The Trouble with Independents." T he subheading is even more on target: "What if these voters are just a clueless horde?"  The article is written by the thoughtful Georgetown scholar (and man of the left) Michael Kazin, who finds himself in company with a lot of conservatives, from me to Rush Limbaugh.  Kazin writes:
No group in American politics gets more respect than independent voters. Pundits and reporters probe what these allegedly moderate citizens think about this issue and that candidate, major party strategists seek the golden mean of messaging that will attract independents to their camp and/or alienate them from the opposing one. Presidential nominees and aides struggle to come up with phrases and settings that will soothe or excite them. But what if millions of independents are really just a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
That is certainly the impression one gets from dipping into the finer details of a mid-April survey of 1,000 likely, registered voters conducted by Democracy Corps, the outfit run by Stan Greenberg and James Carville. Beyond the usual questions about Obama's job approval and that of House Republicans, this poll performed the valuable service of reading out each party's talking points about the current budget debate and then asking respondents which ones they found convincing. The results are mildly hilarious.

Kazin gives several examples that indeed would be hilarious if they weren't so sad, demonstrating yet again how badly contradictory and confused are these voters.  He adds:

To a sympathetic eye, this result might connote a pleasant openness to contrasting opinions, perhaps a desire to give each group of partisans the benefit of the doubt. But I think it demonstrates a basic thoughtlessness.... [M]ost independents, according to this poll, appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard. Scariest of all, come 2012, they just might be the ones to decide the future course of the republic.

Kazin reaches back for historical perspective, citing Walter Lippman, the esteemed early 20th century journalist and a pillar at TNR in its founding period.  Lippman, notes Kazin, feared and believed that "the public was easily manipulated by clever propagandists and ideologues."

That thought will strike some as elitist, and to a degree it is.  Nonetheless, it's difficult to deny.  Have you ever shaken your head in disbelief over the transparent shamelessness of certain political ads, asking yourself, who could believe that?  Well, understand that such ads aim at independent/moderate voters in particular, and with dismaying success.

Kazin goes into areas I wouldn't completely agree with, but his general take is dead on.

I've alluded to this problem of independents/moderates here and in books.  Those familiar with my latest book, Dupes, know that I conclude by underscoring how it was oblivious independents/moderates that made the difference in Barack Obama defeating John McCain in 2008, the latter a supposed moderate who we were always assured would have independents/moderates in the bag.  In a breathtaking display that will leave future historians and political scientists utterly flummoxed, voters elected a president that National Journal ranked the most liberal of all senators, and then walked outside the voting booth and described themselves to pollsters as anything but liberal.  In fact, they described themselves as conservative over liberal by a margin of roughly two to one -- or 40 to 20 percent -- no doubt leaving liberals laughing but extremely grateful.  Even former '60s communist radicals like Mark Rudd, now a "Progressive for Obama," were shocked.

In another survey upon Obama's inauguration, this same electorate said it hoped that this remarkably left-wing new president would model his presidency upon Ronald Reagan's.

Huh?  Obama as Reagan?

Incredible.  Bizarre.  Stupefying.  Enormously frustrating to liberals and conservatives alike.

But this is the kind of political insanity produced by this painfully oblivious mushy middle.  In every election, independents/moderates are the daunting unknown, a total mystery until the very moment their hands yank the lever.  They were the wild card in November 2008, making the difference in electing Obama president -- and, characteristically, at the last minute.

Recently at American Thinker, I wrote that I expect Obama to get re-elected in 2012.  That article upset a lot of conservatives.  My argument was really two-fold:

First, I noted that Obama never dips below 40-percent approval.  He has a lock on several constituencies that supply him near religious devotion, guaranteeing him 40% of the vote no matter what happens.  Obama could call a press conference tomorrow announcing he was born in Russia and the Rev. Wright ghost-wrote his memoirs and that 40 percent wouldn't flinch.

Second, as I lamented and warned, Obama thus merely needs to scrape up another 10% of the electorate in November 2012 to secure himself a second term.  Where would that 10 percent come from?  Easy: moderates and independents.

In response to that article, it was quickly argued by readers that moderates and independents have abandoned Obama and the Democrats, as seen in how they bolted the same Democratic Congress they elected in a gigantic majority in 2008.  I wouldn't be so certain about applying this to Obama in 2012.  These folks are so fickle, so unpredictable, and so, yes, clueless, that they could just as naturally show up and vote Obama a second term.

When will you know?  Not until the votes are tallied.  The independents/moderates don't know yet either.  They are the malleable dupes of our political era.  If Obama and the radical progressives could dupe them once, they can dupe them again.

Alas, then, if there's one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree upon, it's this: moderates and independents are a maddening element of the American republic.  They hold it in their power to vote for a Reagan in one election and an Obama in the next, or to literally call upon an Obama to be a Reagan.  They cannot be trusted in the voting booth, and they will continue to make our political lives miserable.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
The latest edition of The New Republic has an interesting piece, titled, "The Trouble with Independents." T he subheading is even more on target: "What if these voters are just a clueless horde?"  The article is written by the thoughtful Georgetown scholar (and man of the left) Michael Kazin, who finds himself in company with a lot of conservatives, from me to Rush Limbaugh.  Kazin writes:
No group in American politics gets more respect than independent voters. Pundits and reporters probe what these allegedly moderate citizens think about this issue and that candidate, major party strategists seek the golden mean of messaging that will attract independents to their camp and/or alienate them from the opposing one. Presidential nominees and aides struggle to come up with phrases and settings that will soothe or excite them. But what if millions of independents are really just a confused and clueless horde, whose interest in politics veers between the episodic and the non-existent?
That is certainly the impression one gets from dipping into the finer details of a mid-April survey of 1,000 likely, registered voters conducted by Democracy Corps, the outfit run by Stan Greenberg and James Carville. Beyond the usual questions about Obama's job approval and that of House Republicans, this poll performed the valuable service of reading out each party's talking points about the current budget debate and then asking respondents which ones they found convincing. The results are mildly hilarious.

Kazin gives several examples that indeed would be hilarious if they weren't so sad, demonstrating yet again how badly contradictory and confused are these voters.  He adds:

To a sympathetic eye, this result might connote a pleasant openness to contrasting opinions, perhaps a desire to give each group of partisans the benefit of the doubt. But I think it demonstrates a basic thoughtlessness.... [M]ost independents, according to this poll, appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard. Scariest of all, come 2012, they just might be the ones to decide the future course of the republic.

Kazin reaches back for historical perspective, citing Walter Lippman, the esteemed early 20th century journalist and a pillar at TNR in its founding period.  Lippman, notes Kazin, feared and believed that "the public was easily manipulated by clever propagandists and ideologues."

That thought will strike some as elitist, and to a degree it is.  Nonetheless, it's difficult to deny.  Have you ever shaken your head in disbelief over the transparent shamelessness of certain political ads, asking yourself, who could believe that?  Well, understand that such ads aim at independent/moderate voters in particular, and with dismaying success.

Kazin goes into areas I wouldn't completely agree with, but his general take is dead on.

I've alluded to this problem of independents/moderates here and in books.  Those familiar with my latest book, Dupes, know that I conclude by underscoring how it was oblivious independents/moderates that made the difference in Barack Obama defeating John McCain in 2008, the latter a supposed moderate who we were always assured would have independents/moderates in the bag.  In a breathtaking display that will leave future historians and political scientists utterly flummoxed, voters elected a president that National Journal ranked the most liberal of all senators, and then walked outside the voting booth and described themselves to pollsters as anything but liberal.  In fact, they described themselves as conservative over liberal by a margin of roughly two to one -- or 40 to 20 percent -- no doubt leaving liberals laughing but extremely grateful.  Even former '60s communist radicals like Mark Rudd, now a "Progressive for Obama," were shocked.

In another survey upon Obama's inauguration, this same electorate said it hoped that this remarkably left-wing new president would model his presidency upon Ronald Reagan's.

Huh?  Obama as Reagan?

Incredible.  Bizarre.  Stupefying.  Enormously frustrating to liberals and conservatives alike.

But this is the kind of political insanity produced by this painfully oblivious mushy middle.  In every election, independents/moderates are the daunting unknown, a total mystery until the very moment their hands yank the lever.  They were the wild card in November 2008, making the difference in electing Obama president -- and, characteristically, at the last minute.

Recently at American Thinker, I wrote that I expect Obama to get re-elected in 2012.  That article upset a lot of conservatives.  My argument was really two-fold:

First, I noted that Obama never dips below 40-percent approval.  He has a lock on several constituencies that supply him near religious devotion, guaranteeing him 40% of the vote no matter what happens.  Obama could call a press conference tomorrow announcing he was born in Russia and the Rev. Wright ghost-wrote his memoirs and that 40 percent wouldn't flinch.

Second, as I lamented and warned, Obama thus merely needs to scrape up another 10% of the electorate in November 2012 to secure himself a second term.  Where would that 10 percent come from?  Easy: moderates and independents.

In response to that article, it was quickly argued by readers that moderates and independents have abandoned Obama and the Democrats, as seen in how they bolted the same Democratic Congress they elected in a gigantic majority in 2008.  I wouldn't be so certain about applying this to Obama in 2012.  These folks are so fickle, so unpredictable, and so, yes, clueless, that they could just as naturally show up and vote Obama a second term.

When will you know?  Not until the votes are tallied.  The independents/moderates don't know yet either.  They are the malleable dupes of our political era.  If Obama and the radical progressives could dupe them once, they can dupe them again.

Alas, then, if there's one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree upon, it's this: moderates and independents are a maddening element of the American republic.  They hold it in their power to vote for a Reagan in one election and an Obama in the next, or to literally call upon an Obama to be a Reagan.  They cannot be trusted in the voting booth, and they will continue to make our political lives miserable.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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