Obama and Independents



Nice piece in TNR by Ruy Teixeira (the only political scientist I’ve ever seen wearing a purple suit– at a conference many years ago), about Obama’s mis-guided attempts to win over Independent voters:

we have a deal that severely undercuts Democratic policy priorities and cuts government spending just as the economic recovery is showing signs of tanking. Just how, exactly, did it come to this? The most plausible explanation is that Obama and his political advisors are convinced that striking a bipartisan compromise on debt reduction is the way to the hearts of America’s political independents, who famously abandoned the Democrats in 2010.

Following this logic, Obama’s actions—treating the Republicans’ extraordinary threat not as an illegitimate bargaining tactic but as an opportunity—begin to make a measure of sense. Since independents are supposedly fixated on a bipartisan compromise to reduce spending and cut the debt, Obama would use the leverage provided by the Republicans’ threat, in a judo-like fashion, to enlist both parties in a grand bargain to restore long-run fiscal health. As a result, independents would reward Obama for being, in that tired phrase, “the adult in the room” who stood up for their fiscal priorities.

Teixeira proceeds to bring the Political Science (in an area near and dear to my heart– and dissertation) pointing out that there’s not some mass of unaligned independent voters.  The vast majority have strong Democratic or Republican preferences.  They think and vote like partisans the vast majority of t the time.  In conclusion:

These are the facts, but politicians, and Obama especially, seem to have a hard time grasping them. Perhaps that’s because independents are the Rorschach test of U.S. politics—you see in them what your beliefs and preferences incline you to see. Obama and his team want to see teeming hordes of voters who are above the partisan allure of party, untroubled by the bad economy (or, at least, not planning to vote on that basis), and pining for a Washington where the parties, darn it, just work together. So that’s what they see.

The administration’s chimerical search for the independents of their dreams has not served the country, nor the president, well.

Meanwhile, I think John Sides’ comments on Obama’s misread of things over at the Monkey Cage are also quite relevant:

Second, and more importantly, public opinion about political processes doesn’t have big consequences.  It didn’t matter much during the health care debate, for example.  And there isn’t much evidence that it cost Obama a lot of support during the debt ceiling fight, even if the publicfound that fight to be “ridiculous,” “stupid,” or “disgusting.”

But note the corollary: Obama allegedly wants to seek bipartisan solutions that allow him to be seen, particularly by independents, as “making Washington work.”  This just doesn’t work.  Not only because such solutions are hard to come by, but because the public cares more about fixing stuff than about how that stuff gets fixed.  For this reason, a robust economy is a thousand times more helpful to Obama than are his bipartisan credentials.

Indeed.  Obama is a really smart guy, but he’s not perfect.  And it seems to be a case where he and his adviser would genuinely benefit from actual political science as he appears to be operating from a worldview at odds with what Political Scientists recognize as political reality.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Obama and Independents

  1. Or, lest we forget the probable obvious, he actually believes the way his actions have repeatedly shown him to believe; his politics lie in the center, not on the Left. It has nothing to do with being a bad negotiator or for want of being a grand compromising wizard. He’s actually starting from a point that is to the Right of the Democratic base. Turn off the Right’s characterizations of him and look at who he surrounds himself with. Look at the repeated results of his interactions with Congress.

    Despite his meteoric rise and all-star campaign that may have lead some (liberal) voters to believe otherwise, Obama’s a centrist and the political reality is that the mythical independent voters with partisan leanings don’t like centrist no matter how much they claim they do. They appreciate strong, bold, decisive leadership and will flip a vote here and there when they (rarely) find it. Unfortunately for Obama those characteristics aren’t found in compromise or in the center. It’s the reason why a functional moron like Bush could have been re-elected and it could wind up being the reason why Obama is not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: