Over the last 50 years, we have seen a remarkable transformation of the American electorate. The percentage of people identifying as Democrats has been cut nearly in half — from 51 percent in 1961 to 30 percent in 2011. Republicans have seen some gains from this, but the biggest jump has been in the number of people who identify with neither party, which according to the most recent Gallup poll is 46 percent.
It is this group of independents that has more or less determined elections over the last 30 years. Democratic strategists and media mavens trumpeted President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory as a sign of the “emerging Democratic majority,” but in reality the president’s victory hinged above all on the swing of the independent vote.
This helps explain why Obama’s numbers in the public opinion polls have dropped substantially, even though he still retains strong support from the Democratic base. This is not 1961. Democrats do not make up a majority of the country, far from it. Instead, independents hold the balance of power, and Obama is doing poorly with them. In the latest Gallup poll, his standing is 35 percent.
What would happen to the president if he were to win only 35 percent of independent voters next year? He would lose. And it would not be close.
Suppose that the same percentage of Republicans, Democrats and independents turn out in every state in 2012 as happened in 2008. Let’s also suppose that Obama does as well with Republicans and Democrats, but with independents he suffers a 17 percentage point decline in every state (dropping from 52 percent support to 35 percent). That election would look a lot like the 2004 Bush-Kerry campaign.
The Republican nominee would win about 50.5 percent of the vote, while Obama would take about 48 percent. The Electoral College would also look similar to 2004:
The Democrats messed up after their 2008 sweep by forgetting about the independent voter. The stimulus, Obamacare and cap-and-trade were all tailored to appeal to core Democratic constituencies, while independents really have nothing to show for the last three years.
This mistake by the Democrats has given the GOP an opportunity, but to capitalize on it, the party must find a candidate who can articulate core Republican principles in a way that appeals to independents, and then after the 2012 election that leader must govern with an eye to maintaining the party’s support among this critical bloc.
This is easier said than done: No Republican leader has managed to do this in the last 20 years, and George W. Bush’s 2004 victory was so narrow in large part because he won less than 50 percent of the independent vote.
Jay Cost is a staff writer on The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.