In the months since Barack Obama won the presidency, independent voters have rocketed to their highest number on record. Meanwhile, the ranks of Republicans and Democrats have thinned dramatically.
Independents hold the balance of power in the Obama era. That’s the conclusion of a recent, 165-page Pew Research Center survey that shows independent voters climbed to 39% from 30% of the electorate in the five months following the 2008 election. During that same time, Democratic identification fell to 33% from 39%, while Republicans fell four points to 22% — their lowest since post-Watergate.
This is evidence that President Obama’s election does not represent a liberal ideological mandate, as House Democrats have claimed. It also shows continued rejection of the Republican brand.
On virtually every policy issue, independents are situated between increasingly polarized Democrats and Republicans. They more accurately reflect centrist national attitudes than the 11% of Americans who describe themselves as liberal Democrats or the 15% who call themselves conservative Republicans.
Independents are nonideological problem-solvers, but they do not have a split-the-difference approach to politics. They are fiscally conservative but socially progressive, with a strong libertarian streak. It’s on fiscal issues that independents are putting the Obama administration on notice.
Bailout backlash is reflected in independents’ attitude about the expanding social safety net. Just 43% believe that we “should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper into debt” — down 14 points over two years. Independents’ belief that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” has declined 23% since 2003. They are closer to the Republican view that government is usually wasteful and inefficient.
Independents are now the youngest voting block overall: 44% of Americans born after 1977 identify as independent. Republicans are the oldest voter cohort, with just 19% of those born since ’77 identifying with the GOP. Demographics are destiny.
There are now more independents in the West and Midwest than there are Democrats or Republicans. In the South, independents are one point behind first-place Democrats. In the Northeast, where Republicans have gone from near parity 20 years ago to 20% today, independent voters have picked up the GOP’s declining voter rolls. Without a single Republican congressman left in New England, and Democrats at 38% of the local electorate, independents have become the de facto opposition at 37%.
Republican resurgence depends on finding common cause with independent voters. A return to fiscal responsibility offers that opportunity, but it is blocked by perceptions that social conservatives control the party.
In order to win these voters, the hunt for heretics has got to stop. The reality is that all young voters are less conservative on social issues ranging from gay rights to the role of religion in politics. A big tent can be rebuilt on Republican principles of fiscal responsibility and national security, but it will require the politics of addition — not division.
For the Obama administration, the rise of independents so soon after the election should be a wake-up call. While Mr. Obama remains very popular among independents, their approval of the Democrat-controlled Congress is at 29%. Independents identify with the president’s desire to overcome the left-right divide, but his fiscal record looks increasingly at odds with his rhetoric of responsibility.
To close this gap, Mr. Obama should follow through on his promise to pursue entitlement reform in the name of generational responsibility. This will require cultivating a centrist congressional coalition and standing up to liberal interests. But it is the only way to rein in the long-term budget deficit.
A political reformation is underway. As more voters declare their independence, the age of play-to-the-base politics is over.
Mr. Avlon, a columnist for the Web site The Daily Beast, is the author of “Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics” (Three Rivers Press, 2005).