The final polls are out and behind the national horserace is a fascinating dynamic – Mitt Romney is narrowly winning independent voters while President Obama is winning centrist voters by a nearly 20-point margin.
For example, here in the must-win battleground state of Ohio, the final CNN/ORC poll showed Romney edging Obama among independent voters by two points, 48% to 46%. But among moderate voters, Obama is crushing Romney by 21 points – 57% to 36%.
This is significant because in past elections independents and centrist voters have been largely synonymous–overlapping cohorts, reflecting the belief of many independents that the two parties are too polarized and disproportionately dominated by their respective special interests. But what I think we’re seeing this year is the extended impact of the tea party – a growth in the number of independent conservatives that has moved the overall independent voting block slightly to the right. In turn, centrist voters are more likely to vote for Obama precisely because of the polarizing impact of the tea party and the intransigence of many conservative congressmen when it came to working in a good faith spirit of principled compromise with the Obama administration.
National polls also bear this dynamic out. In the final Pew poll of this election, Romney is winning independent voters by a three point margin, 44% to 41%. But Obama is winning centrist voters by a 21-point margin – 56% to 25%. One reason for this split can also be found in the poll – the least popular group in Washington is congressional Republicans who have just a 28% approval rating. This makes the case for possibly giving Republicans unified control of Washington again a tougher sell to swing voters.
This split is one reason the election is so close – and it might also account for why Obama has a narrow lead in many swing states. Romney’s surge after his strong performance in the first debate was due to reassuring moderate voters that he was one of them – not a “severe conservative” but a centrist Republican governor of a blue state with a commitment to bipartisanship. But in the wake of his leadership in Superstorm Sandy – earning the praise of Republican governor Chris Christie and the endorsement of independent New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg along with Colin Powell – Obama has been able to regain his momentum among moderates in the polls.
Independent voters have swung between Democrats and Republicans in recent elections – but the 16-point edge they gave Republicans in the tea party election of 2010 reflected the narrow but intense turnout that occurs during midterms. A presidential election brings out a more representative sample of the electorate – less hardcore partisan and therefore less polarized.
Romney’s narrow edge among independents reflects this broader voter cohort as does Obama large lead among centrist voters. Make no mistake, this is a tight election – and both campaigns have pursued play to the base strategies until the final weeks. But in the end, it is swing voters in swing states who decide who is president. Looking to independents and centrists provides perhaps the biggest clue to who will prevail in this very tight race on Election Day.