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The Media Myth of “Independents”

Last month, when Bethany Murphy wandered over to the “No Labels” rally in Washington, she found a sparse crowd unenthusiastic about their “cause”–centrism, civility, nonpartisanship, etc. But she also found something there that teaches an important lesson for presidential candidates as we head into the 2012 election.

One of the attendees at the rally asked another what their next step was; the reply was, there wasn’t one. Bethany wrote: “Those at No Labels have no next step, because they have no base from which to demand action.” This is a crystal clear distillation of one of the most often debunked myths of presidential elections: that “nonpartisan independents” are the key to victory. Republicans should keep this in mind as the media scolds them for “pandering” to their base while Democrats smartly and loudly complain President Obama should stop ignoring his own base.

For example, Reuters TV White House correspondent Jon Decker is quoted by the Wall Street Journal this morning holding up the campaign of Sharron Angle as indicative of how the GOP could lose to Obama in 2012:

Despite Nevada’s 14 percent unemployment rate; despite the highest bankruptcy rate in the country; despite the highest home foreclosure rate in the country; Harry Reid won another six years in the U.S. Senate (and by a comfortable 5.6 percent margin). The reason: Sharron Angle. The Tea Party-backed Republican made no effort to reach out to independent voters or disaffected Democrats. Similarly, if the 2012 Republican nominee is someone who is portrayed by the mainstream media as extreme or overly partisan, Team Obama will have won half the battle. Harry Reid beat the odds and won a fifth term in a state battered by a bad economy. He won because he made Angle the issue, not the economy. Should the GOP have such a flawed nominee as their standard-bearer in 2012, President Barack Obama will likely follow that same Reid blueprint to victory.

I will not argue there is no such thing as a truly flawed nominee. I don’t think the Republican party can nominate just anyone and win. But there are two declarations in this quote that merit more scrutiny. First, Decker writes, “if the 2012 Republican nominee is someone who is portrayed by the mainstream media as extreme or overly partisan, Team Obama will have won half the battle.” Let me remove the uncertainty for him: the 2012 GOP nominee will be portrayed by the media as extreme or partisan (but probably both). How do I know this? Because they will not nominate a Democrat for the Republican presidential nomination.

The second is Angle made no attempt to reach out to independents or Democrats. Republicans should not fall into the trap Decker is setting for them. Voters are dissatisfied with the incumbent president because his policies have failed. There is no “reaching out” to Democrats and independents (or Republicans for that matter), at least in the classic sense; there is only offering solutions.

This is mainly because independents don’t really exist–at least not in the way the media and pollsters continue to claim they do, against all available evidence. Last month, Alan Abramowitz wrote another full takedown of the obsession with independents–who usually vote for one party and are not an accurate indicator of the popular vote. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx sums it up perfectly: “most ‘independents’ aren’t independent. The ones who are care most about the economy, not displays of bipartisanship. And winning independents doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the popular vote.”

The truth is, firing up your party base is at least as important as appealing to independents, and usually more so. No matter what “No Labels” tells you.


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