Monday, February 4, 2008

Independents: The Swing Vote in 2008

PerryScope: Perry Diaz

Recently, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released its study, "California's Independent Voters" which showed that between the 1988 and 2004 presidential elections, "decline to state" -- or independent -- registration doubled from 9% to 17.7%. Conversely, Democratic registration for the same period fell from 50.4% to 43% and Republican registration fell from 38.6% to 34.7%. In terms of actual numbers, Democratic registration shrunk from 7.1 million in 1988 to 6.6 million today while Republican registration shrunk from 5.4 million to 5.2 million. On the other hand, the independents have grown from 1.3 million in 1988 to 3 million today and their share of the electorate has increased to 19.3% -- that's one out of five California voters.

The PPIC survey showed that independents are politically "flexible." They can either vote Republican or Democrat. It also showed that 39% of independents considered themselves politically moderate while 31% considered themselves liberal and 30% considered themselves conservative. Interestingly, 67% of Republicans call themselves conservative and 53% of Democrats are liberal. It would then be fair to presume that one-third of Republicans and one-half of Democrats are moderate which would tend to indicate that they have the propensity to cross party lines in the general election. Remember the "Reagan Democrats" in the 80's?

The PPIC survey concluded: "With less than a majority of California voters registered in either major party, independents play an increasingly important role in deciding statewide elections. For example, in the 2004 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats supported their party's candidates. Because 56 percent of independents supported the Kerry-Edwards Democratic ticket, Kerry-Edwards beat the Bush-Cheney ticket in California by 10 points (54% to 44%). In the 2006 gubernatorial election, Republicans and Democrats supported their party's candidates, while 54 percent of independents backed Schwarzenegger, who won his reelection (56% to 39%)."

It's interesting to note that the last Republican presidential candidate who won in California was George H.W. Bush in 1988 who managed to keep the "Reagan Democrats" on his side. However, in 1992 the "Reagan Democrats" deserted the Republicans and went back to the fold of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton won in California. Since then, every Democratic presidential candidate had won in California. Is the Democratic candidate going to capture California again in November? Not necessarily.

The battle for the independents started in earnest in the Iowa caucuses last month when the independents flexed their collective strength for Obama; thus, defeating Hillary Clinton, the pre-caucus favorite. In New Hampshire, McCain won resoundingly with the support of the independents. But it was the Florida primary last January 29 that gave McCain the victory he needed to establish himself as the Republican frontrunner going into the 22-state "Super Tuesday" primaries on February 5. Since independents were not allowed to vote in the Florida Republican primary, McCain's five percent advantage over Romney proved his strength in his own party. With the withdrawal of Rudy Giuliani after his defeat in Florida, and his subsequent endorsement of McCain, McCain's lead over Romney has increased to eight percent.

Prior to the New Hampshire primary, McCain had been written off by political pundits. But he struggled to keep his campaign alive and stayed in the race. Then came the New Hampshire primary where independents were allowed to choose whether to vote in the Republican or Democratic primary. McCain's upset victory caught his rivals off-guard. According to exit polls, a whopping 37% of those who voted for McCain identified themselves as "independent."

In the South Carolina primary -- where independents and Democrats were allowed to vote in the Republican primary and independents and Republicans were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary -- McCain proved his ability to draw support from non-Republicans. He beat Huckabee 33% to 30%. Romney fared poorly with only 15% of the vote. Ironically, it was in South Carolina where McCain was blown away in his quest for the presidency in 2000.

McCain's stunning victory in the winner-take-all Republican primary in Florida -- where only Republicans were allowed to cast their vote -- put him ahead in the Republican pack leading to the 22-state "Super Tuesday" primaries on February 5. Indeed, McCain proved in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida that he can attract Republicans, Democrats, and independents to vote for him. No other candidate, Republican or Democrat, has achieved what he did.

At the Republican debate last January 30 at the Reagan Library in California, McCain projected himself as the Republican leader who can lead all Americans. His "reaching across the aisle" style reminds me of the late President Ronald Reagan who was able to work with a Democratic-controlled Congress and got all his key programs passed.

On the Democratic primary, Clinton has a razor-thin edge over Obama and it's too close to predict who would win on "Super Tuesday." However, political pundits have predicted that Clinton will nevertheless win the nomination of her party. With McCain and Clinton leading in their respective primaries, it appears that it is going to be a McCain-Clinton battle in November.

The late President Richard Nixon once said that you have to run to the right to win in the Republican primary and then run as fast as you can to the center to win in the general election. In 1992, Bill Clinton took the cue from Nixon and ran to the left to get the Democratic nomination and then ran to the center to get elected. But McCain seems to have changed the rule, he has one foot on the right and the other foot in the center; thus, maintaining his conservative base of support while attracting the moderate independents early in the game, thereby pre-empting Hillary from getting to the center after she has captured the Democratic nomination.

Never in the history of American politics did independents play a pivotal role in electing the president. They are the swing vote this year. Whoever gets the majority of the independents would clinch the presidency. The question is: which candidate would the independents support?