By Mark Rhoads
For many decades political scientists, main stream media, and pollsters have labored to find an animal as rare as a unicorn. The “independent voter” of legend according to these wise-in-their-own-opinion political junkies is someone who identifies with neither party and who is a “political moderate” with a philosophy of government somewhere between the arch conservatives of the GOP and the radical progressives or liberals of the Democratic Party.
I have no hard data at hand but it seems few other sources do either so I can only offer my anecdotal opinion that this “independent voter” definition is often but not always mostly the gibberish of aging news media pundits who are much too lazy to get out of the office and do their own original research.
Who were the ethnic union members of the 1970s before they rebelled against a Democratic Party that moved too far to the left and became the new Reagan Democrats of the early 1980s? They were the same people who felt their home party leaders had moved too far away from them so much so that they were willing to try a different party with a good message for a while.
Who were the suburban soccer Moms and the hockey Moms before they became the envied new voting blocs of the last decade? They were the same busy Moms they had always been, not necessarily either liberal or conservative but practical and still with the same maternal instincts to protect the family that mothers of other generations had.
Who were the Baby Boomers, old Boomers, very old Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, or Millennials before they started a journey from high school to their first and later jobs or families after college, military service, or a vocational trade school? They were the same confused group that searched for answers to life’s problems over many generations and looked for answers, sometimes unrealistically idealistic, too simple, or too absolutist to comfortably fit in with the complex and messy business of mature democratic institutions.
The point is that from my own studies I have never found how accurately or deeply pollsters try to define exactly what is an independent voter except to say they wander outside of the two major parties somewhere between both of them. But is that really true? Are independents always or only “moderates” and never liberal or conservative? The MSM conventional wisdom since World War II has always been that each party must nominate only someone who can attract the independent moderates because they say, “elections are always decided in the middle.”
More baloney. Elections are decided by the people who turn out to vote and they are not a monolithic group from any point on the spectrum and can come from any political perspective. In 1976, many Christian evangelicals in all parts of the country actually campaigned and voted for Jimmy Carter instead of Gerald Ford because they thought that Carter was one of them and his sister Ruth Carter was an evangelist figure in her own right. Only after the election did evangelicals learn that Carter’s party forced him to take more liberal positions than many evangelicals were comfortable with such as First Lady Roslyn Carter’s campaign for the Equal Right Amendment in Congress and state legislatures.
Four years later when Gov. Ronald Reagan ran against Carter, he appeared before a large gathering of Christian ministers and said this, “Under the rules of this assembly, I realize that you cannot endorse me. But what is far more important is that I endorse you.” That event flipped many former Carter supporters to Reagan, who campaigned on BOTH conservative social and economic issues to create a winning coalition. The establishment Republicans, such as Ford and Dole, did not know how to begin to form. Yes, of course the MSM elites said Reagan was much too conservative to appeal to the moderate middle voters. But Reagan changed the rules of the game, ran his own campaign with no advice from MSM, and won by a wide margin in the Electoral College and the popular vote over Carter (and John Anderson, who according to MSM was supposed to be the ideal Republican candidate because he supposedly could appeal to the moderate voters in the middle). It was all a great myth of independents then, 32 years ago, and I strongly suspect that it still is a great myth.
People have all sort of different personal reasons why they might tell pollsters they are “independents” during a telephone interview call from a stranger at suppertime. They might just want to get the bothersome intruder off the phone. They might be a liberal Democrat who is unhappy with Obama over some issue that was not progressive or radical enough. Or they might be a conservative or Tea-Party booster who just does not like the word “Republican” as a tarnished brand name in 2008 and they say they are “independents” – which might be true in a technical sense - even though they often vote for Republicans who are conservative enough for them compared to a more liberal alternative in a primary or general election.
The same arguments I heard from MSM pundits in 1980 in favor of John Anderson are eerily similar to the arguments I heard earlier this year from MSM pundits in favor of Mitt Romney. Only Romney could be an electable nominee against Obama because only Romney could appeal to the moderate independents who remember are always in the moderate middle of course according to MSM pundits. Also the same arguments I heard from MSM pundits, who were far more dominant in 1980 than today, against the social and economic and national defense conservative platform of Ronald Reagan were very similar to the arguments MSM pundits now advance about why Rick Santorum cannot be elected.
Well, Santorum has better personal family blue-collar credentials now than Ronald Reagan did back in 1980. But both appeals are based on a genuine desire to include all income groups in an expanding-pie theory of economic policy rather than pitting one income group against another to fight over a fixed amount of pie. Both Reagan and Santorum believed in the importance of the family as a basic social building block of a free and humane society and both articulated always the importance of protecting unborn innocents. There are differences of course, Reagan was a successful two-term governor before he was nominated for president and Santorum serve one six-year term in the Senate before he was defeated in a Democratic sweep year by the son of a conservative Democratic legend, Gov. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). When faced with the choice in the same year of 2006, Mitt Romney chose not to even fight for re-election as governor of Massachusetts after only one four-year term because polls showed he was not popular after all his supposedly great accomplishments in his own words last Friday as a “severely conservative” governor.
More nonsense. Romney avoided a fight for his office, conceded the Boston statehouse to now very liberal Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Massachusetts) because he was afraid to lose and damage his plan to run for the open presidential nomination in 2008 when George W. Bush would be term-limited and could not seek re-election. Romney would love to be crowned with the 2012 GOP nomination and appointed as president if he could. He has little fire in the belly because he already has a huge personal financial cushion for more than $250 million which is why it is so difficult for him to relate to the problems of normal middle-class families.
His recent statement that America should let the big three auto makers file for bankruptcy re-organization might make sense in a board room setting but sounds insensitive to the needs of auto workers in Michigan in the political arena. He has a tin ear not just for conservative politics but for politics in general. A personal resume by itself is not a vision for America that voters can understand. It is not the fault of Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, or Newt Gingrich that Romney cannot find his own voice untested by polling and high price political handlers. If most members of the GOP cannot relate to a Romney vision because it is so hard to find, then how to the independent voters, even the ones who really are in the moderate middle, find a Romney vision to excite them enough to volunteer or turnout in large numbers to do battle with the Obama team? Rick Santorum’s base, whether you agree with every social position he takes, is excited about his campaign in a way that the Romney base is not and that is the more telling reason for the recent Santorum surge in all polls.
Santorum was once elected statewide from a northeast industrial state that has normally trended Democratic in the past but thanks in part to the Tea Party it is a very competitive two-party state now with a GOP governor and GOP majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Is it Romney with his milquetoast moderate message, or Santorum with his blue-collar Pennsylvania coal mine family roots, who has a better chance and taking back the 20 electoral votes of Pennsylvania this year. I argue Santorum is better positioned to do that in spite of his defeat at the hands of Casey in 2006 because of the same reason he is surging nationally in polls.
The Santorum base in Pennsylvania is more energized now while the Casey and Obama base are more complacent than they were in 2006 for Casey and 2008 for Obama. There are still some Reagan Democrats in Pennsylvania. While Obama beat McCain in the state by 11 points in 2008, this is the same state he lost to Hillary Clinton when he said the citizens would cling to their guns and bibles. The 2008 fall result does not show deep popularity for Obama in Pennsylvania, it rather shows rejection for McCain, whose only real attempt to energize conservatives was the selection of Sarah Palin as the VP nominee. Voters almost never vote for a ticket solely based on a vice presidential nominee. McCain was the issue and not his running mate in 2008.
The bottom line is that if Santorum is nominated, he knows he will have to keep his most energetic base but also attack the Obama economic policies that have wasted so much money on stimulus schemes with so little success. Santorum was the number three leader in the Senate at an early age. I think he is showing himself now to be smarter than Romney on his feet – certainly politically smarter. He does not scare off people in the same way that Newt Gingrich did, who like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had the arrogance to think he was so smart that only his own opinions mattered and only he knew what was best for all Americans.
Santorum has the humble conviction of his core beliefs, but not the arrogance of the others. Romney would be a friendly golfer in the foursome at your country club who could bet ten thousand per hole - the price of a new custom suit for him - but finding his real core beliefs is a challenge he has not yet met in a clear way for either himself or many voters – even moderate voters who really are in the middle. Romney has done nothing yet to offend such voters but neither does he excite their loyalty in large numbers. That is one reason his turnout numbers have fallen below 2008 totals in most 2012 GOP primary and caucus states (except Florida).
Originally published in Illinois Review