Does Mitt Romney Understand Independent Voters?

Does Mitt Romney Understand Independent Voters?

There’s an unanalyzed section of Mitt Romney’s remarks at the Florida fundraiser last May — the ones that were captured on video and have been the subject of a campaign and media mega-frenzy.

Toward the end of the now infamous statement that he’ll never get the votes of the 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government,” Romney added, “What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.”

Poor Mitt. The number of misconceptions, misunderstandings and miscalculations about independent voters contained in these 47 words rivals his negation of the 47 percent.

First, Romney suggests that at least some independents vote on the basis of whether they like someone. I won’t argue that on the merits, because likability is a rare commodity in politics. Doing what it takes to win often involves doing destructive things that make you unlikeable. But, if you accept Romney’s premise that likability is an outsize factor for independent voters, he should be concerned. A Washington Post-ABC News national poll last week found that 56 percent of independents think Obama seems more likable, versus 28 percent for Romney.

But setting likability aside, when Romney characterizes independents as “in the center” he repeats a fundamental error made by many partisan politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle. Independents are not “in the center” — that would put them in between the two parties. They are instead “other than” the two parties. They’re independent because they don’t like parties, or the gridlock and partisanship they foment.

The policy views of independents range from right to left, and they often mix and match viewpoints in unorthodox ways. To categorize them as “in the center,” is to miss the essential point of why independents are independents. They’re a swath of Americans who believe the parties distort political discourse, limit political thinking and cater to special interests.

What’s more, the number of independents in this country isn’t 5 to 10 percent. It’s greater than 40 percent.

That number is growing, and no party or politician has a lock on this anti-partisan force. Independents want a less partisan system, which is why they consistently support nonpartisan reforms that downsize the power of political parties. Pollsters rarely ask about that.

Pollsters, however, do ask whether voters favor a government that emphasizes individual responsibility over shared responsibility. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll in three swing states — Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin — independents favor individual more than shared responsibility. Yet, in Colorado, where the sentiment in favor of individual responsibility was highest among all voters, independents favor Obama over Romney. Go figure.

Independent voters have made their presence felt in recent political cycles, including the midterms in 2010 and the 2008 presidential race, when independents propelled Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination via open primary and caucus states. Then, in November, they backed Obama over John McCain by 8 points. Obama is not only America’s first black president. Many regarded him as America’s first independent president.

He could do more to lead like one. Last week, Obama gave a candid assessment of the politics of governing. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is you can’t change Washington from the inside,” he said. “You can only change it from the outside.” He’s right, of course. And independents are America’s political outsiders.

With Nov. 6 on the horizon many questions remain about this crucial voting bloc. Who will independents back in the 2012 presidential race? Will the turnout by independents match 2008, when nonaligned voters were 29 percent of the electorate? One thing remains clear: The parties don’t understand independents, and they might prefer to win the election without us.

Ironically, the firestorm last week over Romney’s remarks center on his accusations that a culture of dependency on government has eclipsed half the nation. In the opinion of most independents, there is a culture of dependency in America, but it’s not the one that Romney described. It’s the culture of dependency on the political parties, where the parties define the issues, make the rules and pursue partisan power no matter the cost to the country. That’s the dependency that independents want to transform.

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