The hottest political growth stock these last six months has been that of “independents.” A recent Pew Research Center study found that “the percentage of self-described political independents has steadily climbed, on a monthly basis, from 30 percent last December to 39 percent in April.” That, Pew adds, is a 70-year high.
Not surprisingly, Pew found that the Republican party has lost many disgruntled conservatives (and some moderates) to the ranks of the independents in recent years. But Democrats, too, began vacating their premises during the new president’s traditional honeymoon period, falling from 39 percent in December to 36 percent in February to 33 percent in April. Talk about separate bedrooms! Because their ranks are exploding with the disgruntled from both major parties, one would not expect independents as a whole to move very far ideologically in one direction or the other — unless, that is, something is going on here.
Writing last year in the Wall Street Journal, John P. Avlon described independents as “fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and strong on national security. They believe in putting patriotism over partisanship and the national interest over special interests.” The Pew study concluded that “an increasing share of independents describe their views as conservative.”
This should set off alarm bells in Washington’s Democratic-party establishment. After all, the front pages swim in stories that must alienate those independents who pulled the lever last year for President Obama and moderate Democratic candidates for Congress. Headlines trumpeting unprecedented levels of federal spending and debt, frightening government power grabs and bailouts, and quiescence in the face of North Korean missile launches seem custom-made to rankle these voters.
A close review of recent polling sheds some light on what might be happening. On questions as varied as Uncle Sam’s bailout of the automotive industry, the tradeoff between environmental protection and protecting jobs, the importance of free trade, and whether the best way to preserve the peace is through military strength, independent voters have been trending to the ideological right over the past six months.
According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, voters now believe Republicans are the party best able to handle the economy. Here, the GOP moved from a five-point deficit (39 percent to 44 percent) in February to a six-point advantage (45 percent to 39 percent) in June. Independent voters, in particular, now give the Republicans a decisive 49 percent to 24 percent edge, a 19-point improvement since those early, heady days of the Obama honeymoon. But Republicans shouldn’t uncork their champagne prematurely: Most of this change reflects dissatisfaction with the Democrats rather than a decisive shift to the Republicans.
On taxes, Republicans improved slightly among voters as a whole, from a three-point edge in February (44 percent to 41 percent) to a five-point advantage now (44 percent to 39 percent). The most dramatic shifts since February occurred among younger voters (who now favor the GOP by a slight, but nevertheless surprising, 38 percent to 35 percent margin) and among voters with incomes between $20,000 and $75,000.
Voters with incomes $75,000 or higher seem to have internalized the president’s oft-stated vow not to raise taxes on anyone with income below $250,000. They actually swung toward the Democrats these last four months. In February, voters with incomes over $100,000, for example, favored the GOP on the tax issue by 55 percent to 39 percent. Now, they give a modest 46 percent to 43 percent thumbs-up to the Democrats.
Independents, by contrast, moved away from the Democrats and are now one of the GOP’s strongest voter groups on the tax issue. The percentage of independents that see the Democrats as best able to handle tax issues dropped from 29 percent in February to only 19 percent now. The Republican share didn’t gain from the Democratic share’s loss, though; it held firm at just below 50 percent.