The Corner

Values the Key to the Independent Vote

Presidents Reagan and Clinton resonated with the American center because they were masters at connecting their policies with the underlying values that determine intensity and outcomes. A new survey shows that understanding the deep-seated concerns and values of independents will be key to capturing their vote.

Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), engaging Douglas E. Schoen LLC, just completed the most comprehensive national survey on record of likely independent voters done in recent years. It’s no surprise to learn that independents are now trending Republican. But it’s not just about policy: A large part of that sentiment is driven by core concerns and values. Here are some key takeaways:

Free-marketers, not Keynesians here: Among independents, 89 percent believe government, in Michael Barone’s formulation, needs to “go on a diet: spending, the federal debt, government services, taxes and bureaucratic rules should also be decreased so that government can be slimmer and more limber and return more control to citizens.”

Unsurprisingly, then, independents believe that what would help most with a national recovery is cutting spending (65 percent) and cutting taxes (44 percent). Indeed, 49 percent believe the Democratic leadership has not only addressed the economic crisis the wrong way, but made it worse. Another stimulus bill for infrastructure does not rate high with this crowd; their faith lies with citizens controlling decisions, not government making decisions for them.

The gotcha issues: Asked on what issue the current Democratic leadership’s actions have been most dismaying, the economy and job creation (22 percent) rank first, followed by the health-care legislation (17 percent).

But in assessing intensity — that is, assume you agree with a candidate on every issue save one; would you still vote for him? — foremost in tipping the scales is health care (48 percent) and the Ground Zero mosque (46 percent), followed by size of government and spending (41 percent).

Of the 48 percent for whom health care was a high-intensity issue, 83 percent oppose Obamacare; only 16 percent approve. And of those for whom the Ground Zero mosque was high-intensity, only 23 percent were from the Northeast.

Spending will almost certainly be the foremost issue in the election. But the intensity with which people hold their views on Obamacare and the Ground Zero mosque could also tip campaigns.

Why the intensity? For many, these issues are about more than policy. Obamacare and the GZM have become decisive value markers for candidates’ likely views on whether government should be limited, and the seriousness with which the rights and sensibilities of the American people are regarded.

Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar: Concerns about values and our country’s direction have resonance with independents, as becomes apparent in their answers to what they like most about Republicans.

Remarkably, the top two answers — ahead of the economic-policy answers, “cutting spending and taxes” (9 percent) and “understand business and the economy, and believe in creating wealth more than redistributing it” (8 percent) — were about the relationship of the government to the people.

Indeed, for many voters, “cutting spending” may be just a shorthand: Three of the top five answers were values-based and spoke to the role of government and the potential of the American people. Those three were: that Republicans “understand the importance of protecting personal freedoms by restraining government and making it smaller and less intrusive” (13 percent), were “more in touch with my values” (10 percent), and “trust individuals to make better decisions than government bureaucrats and are more optimistic about the future of our country and its value and importance” (6 percent).

For many independents, themes of protecting freedoms, shrinking government, and trusting the individual, recurred again and again throughout the survey.

A beauty contest where the contestants are all ugly: This year, having political experience may be a serious liability — 63 percent of independents would prefer a businessman who has new ideas and no ties to the political system, versus 15 percent who think a career politician would be best.

Not surprisingly, 81 percent said that the federal government and political leadership in Washington were out of touch with Americans like themselves. Nearly a quarter gave the expected answer to explain the disconnect: that the politicians spend their time fighting rather than reaching compromises.

But look at the balance of the answers, which should make incumbents nervous: “They are corrupt and too much about the power and control” (24 percent); “they do not understand the needs of ordinary Americans” (23 percent); “they often make problems worse, while burdening our children and grandchildren with tremendous debt” (21 percent); and “the legislation they pass is unhelpful and unresponsive to the problems we face and maybe even counterproductive” (17 percent). Ouch.

Can’t buy me love: Increasing the level of government involvement in providing social services like health care and education, and regulating areas like financial services, has long been the tried-and-true formula for politicians to show they care. Now, with independents, such actions will have the opposite effect: Sixty-six percent say that government’s doing so would make them feel less secure. This is an important and ground-shifting change in the zeitgeist.

In short, independents see a growing divide between themselves and the political class; the party that can speak reasonably to those concerns, and mean it, could induce a permanent political realignment.


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