Independent voters are turning away from President Obama and his fellow Democrats in droves. And if they can't find a way to get them back, the party could be in deep trouble for 2010 and beyond.
Independents gave Obama the White House last year with a vote for pragmatic competence. They have been repaid with partisanship and dithering. And unlike liberals who Obama has quickly re-energized after their summer doldrums, independents are devilishly hard to win back once they lose faith.
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the Rolls-Royce of public surveys, showed that for the first time, independents disapproved of the president's performance, 46 percent to 41 percent.
For the first few months of the Obama administration, independents, who make up about 43 percent of the electorate, reflected overall public opinion in giving the president consistent approval ratings of about 60 percent. But now, unaffiliated voters are less positive than the overall electorate, which is holding steady at 51 percent job approval for Obama.
More shocking is that independent voters now favor a Republican-controlled Congress by a four-point margin and would overwhelmingly like to see their own member of the House replaced.
Those are the kinds of numbers you see before electoral hurricanes like 1966 or 1994. And if independents are already at that point after so recently enduring the shoddy performance of the previous GOP majority, it's a sign of real dissatisfaction. Democrats have grown very jittery about the congressional elections in 2010.
In 2008, exit polls show Obama won independent voters 52 percent to 44 percent, a dramatic departure from the previous two cycles. John Kerry won 49 percent to George W. Bush's 48 percent. In 2000, Bush won independents 47 percent to Al Gore's 45 percent thanks to Ralph Nader's 7 percent share of the group.
Much of Obama's success can be attributed to the implausibility of the McCain candidacy. The Republican's internal bickering and erratic campaign did not look good against the cool calm of the Obama effort. That played to the independent preference for competence over ideology.
That's why one area of the Journal poll should particularly alarm the president and his handlers. There has been a nine-point drop in public confidence in Obama's goals and polices. That's the competency question and now only 45 percent of people are feeling confident instead of the 54 percent from the spring.
Public approval for the president's handling of the economy has remained steady at about 50 percent, and the personal affection toward the man has remained steadily high at 77 percent.
The cause of the drop is foreign policy, where the approval for the president's performance dropped 7 points since July to 50 percent.
That's big trouble for a president who had to work very hard to convince voters that he was sincere when he said, “I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.”
Independents now account for the largest segment of the voting public, a reflection of the skeptical bent of our society. Believing that one party or another is morally superior or has the right answers seems rather quaint in this era. Plus, our geographically and socially mobile nation is producing fewer rock-ribbed Republicans and yellow-dog Democrats.
However cynical Americans become about politics and parties, though, that does not mean that we hold nothing sacred.
Gallup regularly surveys Americans on their confidence in different institutions and right up at the top, ahead of perennial favorites small business and religion, you will consistently find the military.
Already high, confidence in the armed forces climbed to 82 percent this summer as the transition out of Iraq began. Contrast that with confidence in newspapers (25 percent) or big business (16 percent).
That's why Obama was careful to play on the idea that President Bush had not listened to his military commanders about Iraq. It wasn't military adventurism that hurt Bush, it was the belief that he and Donald Rumsfeld ignored commanders' advice about troops and resources.
Now, Obama is ignoring the desperate-sounding pleas of his hand-picked commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for more troops.
We hear that Obama is waiting to see what happens next before deciding to continue with his own strategy of an Afghan surge. His team is reading a book about how the Kennedy administration was led astray by the military and holding a series of meetings about the way forward.A flip-flop on what Obama called a “war of necessity” just last might well send the independents to the exits for good.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.