As Republicans sift through the wreckage of the presidential election and Democrats brace for the 2014 midterms, there is one clear point of agreement between them: Independent voters no longer decide elections.
In 2012, Mitt Romney became the first presidential candidate in recent history to decisively win the independent vote -- yet just as decisively lose the election. Pollsters and campaign strategists -- particularly Republicans -- are scrambling to understand what happened -- and more important, what it means for future campaign strategies.
Romney trounced Barack Obama with independents in five of the eight battleground states that Obama won, including all-important Ohio. In four of those states, Romney won the demographic by a healthy 10 percentage points. These numbers were reflected in most pre-election polls, giving Team Romney and Republicans overall a deluded confidence they had the race in the bag.
Strategists in both parties now believe that the Romney campaign and the GOP in general completely missed a significant new reality: Many voters who chose to remain unaffiliated with either party are no longer shifting their allegiance from election to election, candidate to candidate. Instead, they are becoming increasingly partisan and predictable. That means that in order to win, each party must be far more ambitious in cementing its base -- as Team Obama did -- to win elections.
In fact, three weeks after the election, a shell-shocked senior Romney aide conceded: "We always said if we were winning independents in Ohio, we would win Ohio because that's just the way it always was," Romney political director Rich Beeson said. "They [the Obama campaign] were looking at a different dynamic, and their dynamic proved out."
Indeed, the Obama's campaign's relentless voter modeling early on revealed that the voting bloc that was historically considered independent -- and that had behaved as swing voters -- was fast shrinking. Instead, most current unaffiliated voters were identifying with one party or the other -- and voting that way.
"Moderates is a better way to define the people who swing back and forth ... and those are the people who you're going to fight over," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina at a recent POLITICO Playbook breakfast, when asked if the notion of independents deciding elections was passe. And by that definition, Messina claims that Obama prevailed with swing voters by 15 percentage points.
Pollsters estimate that today, truly undecided voters may make up 10 percent of eligible voters. These swing voters tend to be white, married, non-college-educated women 40 and older, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake ("I call her waitress mom," Lake said, describing the demographic).
Democratic strategists say that when their early polling picked up that the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Republicans was dwindling -- and that self-identified independents were surging -- they didn't assume this was good news. A closer look at this shift revealed that in the past few years, a large number of tea party Republicans switched their registration to independent but nonetheless voted firmly in the GOP column.
For Democrats, something similar was occurring. The hundreds of thousands of Latinos registering for the first time preferred to be listed on the rolls as "unaffiliated" or independent -- but were actually far more likely to vote Democrat.
But this new reality seemed to elude many Republicans surrounding the Romney campaign and in the 2012 GOP echo chamber. All they saw was Romney leading among independents and concluded that since Obama won independents by 8 points in 2008, this spelled victory. (John Kerry secured them by a single percentage point in 2004 over George W. Bush, which was not considered relevant.)
"No candidate has won the White House while losing independents by a significant margin," crowed conservative Breitbart blogger Mike Flynn one week before the election. "Based on this alone, ... Obama is staring at defeat next week."
How to tackle this new electoral model may prove to be a challenge for Republicans who still can't even agree on why they lost.
Many blame Romney for wasting too much time focusing on GOP-leaning independents during the campaign -- to the detriment of turning out the party's own base.
"What does it matter if polls showed that 31 percent of Latinos support us if we have no idea who they are and don't bother asking them to go out and vote," said Ed Goeas, a GOP pollster who is analyzing the 2012 results for the Republican National Committee. "The Romney campaign hasn't owned up to this yet, but their get-out-the-vote plan was a disaster. We are talking nonexistent versus Obama's superior operation."
Others, led by party stars like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, believe there are simply not enough Republicans left in the base to turn out because the party has failed abysmally to attract minorities -- including Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the population. "It is a challenge to take what you stand for and try to convince people that it is better for them than what the other side is offering," Rubio recently noted.
"The problem is that we don't have enough humans out there to vote for us," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers, who lists himself among those who believed Romney was going to win up until the eleventh hour. "There is a new model and it is no longer just about white swing voters -- we've obviously maxed out there. We need to change the message and we need to do better at selling our message."
Figuring out the future relevance of independents is critically important for both parties because the assumption that independents drive elections has for decades dictated how campaigns spend critical advertising dollars and deploy staff.
Obama chief strategist David Axelrod said the campaign concluded it had to aggressively court the base and swing voters to stay ahead of the curve. "You have to do both," Axelrod said in an email interview with POLITICO.
"We made the registration and mobilization of our core supporters a major focus and it showed. But a great deal of effort, and message time, was spent on persuading a narrow pool of swing voters we felt were up for grabs -- many of whom were folks who had been with us in 2008, but were undecided in 2012. We combined old-fashioned shoe leather and state-of-the-art technology to identify and communicate with these voters. In states like Ohio, these efforts were critical."
In truth, academics and research scholars have long been skeptical that independents were the linchpin of elections. Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, has even given independents an acronym: IINOs -- Independents In Name Only.
"Independents, for the most part, are not some massive group of swing voters who sit in the center of the political arena and sway between parties and elections," said Teixeira, who has written extensively on electoral demographics. "Most Americans who say they are independent identify with a particular party -- and vote that way. And they do not decide elections."
Going forward, the biggest challenge for Democrats, said pollster Lake, is figuring out whether the model that Obama created -- i.e., putting as much effort into expanding the base and GOTV as into swaying swing voters -- can be duplicated in off-year elections for Congress and governorships.
Many Democrats and experts are doubtful.
"This model is less likely to work in off-years where turnout is generally lower because there is no high-visibility contest at the top of the ballot," said University of Michigan political scientist Michael Traugott. "The presidential campaign team usually has less interest in these contests as well. Just look at what happened in 2010 in the Republican sweep.
"So I would say that Obama expanded his OWN base, but not in a way that helped many other Democratic candidates in the off-year. This is a puzzle that remains to be solved."
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.