It has become undeniably apparent, as I argued in the cover story of In These Times’ September issue, that self-identified Independent voters are the largest bloc of movable voters at this final stage of the election campaign.
If anyone had any doubt about their volatility, their significance or who they were, the results of an Washington Post/ABC News poll published on October 25, should put such doubts to rest. As the Washington Post pointed out, a recent shift of voters to Romney “has been particularly acute among white men, whites without college degrees and white Independents.”
Indeed, as the Post reported, “Nearly half of all of those who supported Obama in 2008 but now say they support Romney are white Independents.”
Contrary to popular belief, these critical political Independents are not well-informed moderates who wait until all the arguments are in to make a seasoned choice
On the contrary, as a group these are the least informed members of the electorate, who repeated studies indicate harbor a deep skepticism not only toward politicians, but politics in general — a skepticism that extends beyond politics to institutions in general and that explains why do not affiliate with any one political party.
These white independent voters do not seek out information about politics. In fact, many of them consciously seek to avoid what often sounds to them like the cacophonous, unintelligible and unnecessary conflict of the political world.
Many of them will not vote on Tuesday.
But those that do could well decide the 2012 presidential election. These comments are not intended as a putdown of these self-identified Independents. Rather they reflect a statement of fact derived from decades of research regarding this group of voters, who have chosen life priorities that differ dramatically from the usual In These Times audience. As a group they direct their energies and attention elsewhere — their jobs, their families, sports, personal hobbies, etc. — rather than to what they perceive as this somewhat remote and conflict-laden realm of politics.
But while these political Independents are both disinterested in and highly skeptical of politics, that does not mean they lack discernible political impulses and views.
For years, studies have shown that independent non-college educated white men harbor a bundle of conflicting, indeed, manifestly contradictory impulses and attitudes. Many of them are simultaneously suspicious of or even hostile to people of color, the mainstream media, immigrants and labor unions — but also to big business and Wall Street.
In short, they are amenable to both Left and Right populisms.
The apparent inability of Democratic campaign consultants and others in the Democratic Party’s organizational elite to understand how to reach this group of swing voters — and their apparent failure to recognize that this group of voters have a strong aversion to politics in general — has led them to provide strikingly irrelevant advice to Democratic campaigns around the country.
On October 29, Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, the leading centrist Democratic think tank, suggested a “foolproof victory plan” for the president’s re-election in Politico.
He advised Obama to present a fairly extensive set of policy changes in the budgetary and regulatory realm, including, as a capstone, a (supposedly dramatic) acceptance of Simpson-Bowles—the debt-reduction plan proposed by the chairs of the 2010 bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, but never ratified by the full committee.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the intrinsic merits (or lack of same) of Marshall’s policy recommendations, they have one absolutely fatal flaw. Few of the critical swing Independent voters have very little background knowledge of the policy options Marshall was talking about, much less any clue about what “Simpson-Bowles” is.
Such complex policy arguments are not the way to reach the last remaining swing voters still open to potential change in the final hours of the presidential race.
More simple, but potentially decisive adjustments in a few words and issue frames (reflecting deeply held voter attitudes already existing in this swing electorate) are the only tools likely to have any impact on these small but volatile groups of voters.
Here is one simple suggestion that might help ensure an Obama victory:
Stop trying to convince the swing electorate that the Obama administration has the management skills to deal with the economy. In other words, stop framing the “economic issue” in Republican terms. Instead, reframe the “economic” issue to terms which Independents (and soft Democrats) have historically been more likely to believe.
For more than five (!) decades, Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates have always had a 5 – 15 additional point advantage when the economy was framed in terms of “who those policies are for” rather than managerial competence. This remarkable durable perception on the part of the American electorate is that the Democrats’ represent ordinary American working people — not the rich or the giant corporations.
Even as non-union white working people flee the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, polling data reaffirms this historical trend and its potential as a source of critical last-minute Obama voter strength.
Thus, at the very same time, that polls this last week continue to show Romney leads of 4 – 8 points in “which presidential candidate (or party) is likely to best manage the economy,” polls, including the Post-ABC poll, show that more Americans continue to think that Romney’s economic policies will favor the wealthy and that Obama’s economic policies are more likely to favor a broader range of the population.
However, the Obama campaign (inexplicably) continues to shy away from framing the economic issue in populist “who represents whom” terms and, instead, retains its fixation on arguing the economic issue in competence terms. In recent days, the president has been waving around a 20-plus page document detailing his economic policies and programs.
Finally, to give this final populist framing an added boost, President Obama should weave in the words “working people” and “workers” more prominently in his final campaign speeches and appeals.
These working people who feel left out of the current Obama campaign’s message framing and language are precisely those voters who are drifting away from Obama but who are so important in determining the outcome of this year’s election.
Simply put, the critical final “question” for the Obama campaign to ask the American people should not be: “Who do you trust to more competently manage the American economy in the next four years?”
Rather it should be: “Who do you trust to ensure that the economic gains of the next four years are shared by all the American people — and do not just go to the very few?”
If the polls are as tight as they appear, moving even a few more voters with the most effective framing possible for a Democrat of this key issue of the campaign — the economy — could be decisive.
And President Obama doesn’t have to convince folks reading this article of anything: They already believe it.