At the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting in Washington D.C. last Friday, potential 2012 GOP presidential contender Mike Pence, a Representative from Indiana, declared, “This is our moment” to turn the Democrats out of power and restore a conservative majority to Washington.
Republicans are giddy about their prospects this November, pointing to three recent special elections which all resulted in Republican victories, two of them in the heavily Democratic states of New Jersey and Massachusetts. Cook Political, a website which regularly reports on all things political and performs extensive research and analysis on political races, projects that 58 House races are currently in competitive territory (meaning that either party has a decent chance of winning). Of these 58, 52 are currently held by Democrats: only six are held by Republicans. In the Senate, 36 seats are up for grabs, evenly distributed between Republican and Democratic incumbents. Of these 36, Cook Political ranks 17 as “leans Republican” or better, whereas only ten are ranked as “leans Democrat” or better. Nine states are currently rated as tossups, of which Democratic incumbents currently hold five.
The fact that the Democrats have more seats up for grabs probably isn’t surprising: after all, they hold the largest majorities in both Houses of Congress in years. What should worry them more is a recent Pew Research poll which found that 31 percent of Americans do not want to see their incumbent reelected: much higher than the historical average of 23 percent. Thirty-one percent may not seem like a high number, but given the fact that incumbents have been reelected on average over 90 percent of the time in recent years, an almost ten-point shift in anti-incumbency feeling is majorly bad news for
Perhaps even more dangerous for the Democrats is the recent shift of Independents away from their party. According to the most recent Gallup survey, 47 percent of Independents would vote for a generic Republican candidate over a Democratic one, while only 31 percent would vote for a Democrat. Considering that just prior to the 2008 election Independents favored Democrats by a 46 percent-39 percent advantage, these latest numbers represent a catastrophic loss of Independent support for the Democratic Party. Independents are hugely important in political races: over 90 percent of Democrats and Republicans intend to vote for their party’s candidate, meaning that the only way to win (unless your district is over 50 percent your party) is to court the Independent vote. Independents were to a large extent responsible for recent Republican victories in those special elections I mentioned earlier.
Even in states as heavily Democratic as New Jersey and Massachusetts, the shift in Independent support to Republicans allowed the GOP candidates to overcome the relative lack of Republican voters in their race and claim victory. If there are enough Independents in Massachusetts and New Jersey to swing an election to the Republican column, there are enough Independents in any district in the
nation to do the same.
So what does all this have to do with Mike Pence and CPAC? Well, despite the fact that I consider myself a conservative and a Republican, I would offer a word of caution to the giddy CPAC attendees. Independents are moving away from Democrats: not towards Republicans. The percentage of independents voting for a generic Republican is still below 50 percent. Independents voted for the GOP in those special elections not because the candidates stressed conservatism but rather because they ran as moderate Republicans who focused on general issues such as the economy, the deficit, health care and terrorism rather than traditional hard-core conservative issues like abortion.
Mike Pence’s call for a renewed conservative majority on the Hill is sure to fire up CPAC attendees, but probably not the one group which Republicans need to win: Independents. Independents are more concerned with general issues that affect wide margins of Americans and are likely to shy away from hard-right candidates. In my opinion, the biggest message to take away from the huge shift in Independents’ voting choice is that they are not happy with
Perhaps this is because they feel neither party accurately reflects their views: for too long they have been forced to choose between the hard left or the hard right. In 2008 they broke for the Democrats (Obama in particular) because the Democratic theme was one of a “new kind of politics,” and a “post-partisan” atmosphere in which Congress would stop its bickering and actually accomplish something.
The way the Democrats have acted since their assumption of power has been anything but post-partisan: indeed, their actions have been just as ruthless and ideological as the Republicans were from 2000-2006. The shift among Independents away from the Democrats reflects this perception. What Republicans need to do is recognize this Independent mind-set and move towards the center. Instead of a conservative moment, the Republicans need to realize that we are in the midst of something far different: a moderate moment.