WASHINGTON – In American politics, this might be the year that the center strikes back.
For six years, President Bush and the Republican congressional majority have governed behind a distinctive political strategy that focuses on mobilizing their hard-core supporters with an aggressively conservative agenda, even at the price of straining relations with moderate and independent swing voters.
Indeed, key GOP strategists argue that in this polarized political era so many Americans have hardened in their loyalty to one of the two major parties that hardly any swing voters still exist.
But this year it appears that reports of the death of the swing voter are premature.
In races in virtually every corner of the country, key Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are facing imposing, sometimes cavernous deficits in the traditional center of the electorate, among voters who describe themselves as independents and moderates.
If that trend holds through Tuesday it might not only sweep Democrats into control of one or both chambers of Congress, but also ignite a debate in Republican ranks over the continuing viability of the base-centered political strategy that Bush and key advisers such as Karl Rove have devised.
“You can make a more realistic assessment of this when you see where the losses are, but (the message) is going to be that swing voters still count and sometimes the more you cater to your base, the more you turn off swing voters,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist who dueled with Bush’s team in 2000 and 2004, is even more emphatic: If the election results follow the trajectory of the latest polls, he says, “I think their whole model is going to lay shattered in pieces.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, disputed the suggestion that the administration has “ignored or not focused on swing and independent voters (in its political strategy).”
Mehlman said that both through systematic outreach to Latinos and blacks, and the party’s use of advanced “micro-targeting” technology to find GOP-leaning voters in predominantly Democratic communities, “a huge part of my strategy has been to work on expanding the party.”
But for years, Rove and his top lieutenants have touted their belief that in this highly polarized era, less than 1-in-10 voters still swing in their allegiance between the parties from election to election. One of their key assumptions has been that the vast majority of voters who call themselves independents actually vote like reliable Democrats or Republicans, although they don’t accept the label.
Those conclusions led the White House, in the reversal of the usual practice, to direct more of its campaign spending in 2004 toward mobilizing the Republican base than converting swing voters. It also reinforced Bush’s inclination to pursue an ambitious conservative agenda at home and abroad that largely unified both rank and file and congressional Republicans in support but generated near lock-step opposition from Democrats.
“The campaign strategy was geared toward certain policy objectives and they governed in a certain way to promote that electoral strategy,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “They are intertwined.”
But this year, it appears that less of the electorate is permanently locked down than the White House theories projected. With Bush’s approval rating among independent voters now standing below 30 percent, polls in every region of the country show independents, who constituted about one-quarter of the vote in each of the past two elections, moving sharply against Republican candidates.
The belief that swing voters are virtually extinct “has led to a lot of President Bush’s problems,” insisted Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “Because what it leads you to do is blow off the middle (in your decisions) and only worry about the base. And there are lots of voters who seem very inclined to punish President Bush in this election for behaving that way.”
Tom Beggs, Chuck Dubois and Danny Bell, three businessmen from St. Joseph, Mo., for instance, are all reconsidering their support for Bush and the GOP. Each voted for Bush in 2000; all but Dubois voted for him in again in 2004.
But all three are deeply disenchanted with Bush now, largely over the Iraq war, and intend to express their discontent by supporting Democrat Claire McCaskill in the state’s closely fought Senate race.
The president’s “overall arrogance freaks me out,” said Bell, who owns an insurance agency, after watching McCaskill sweep through a downtown restaurant late last week. “It’s his way or no way. He won’t compromise on anything. He won’t make any changes. I’m going to try to get out as much of that old (Republican) regime as I can.”
Polls suggest those three are hardly alone in their sentiments. In the 2002 congressional contests, post-election surveys showed that Republicans ran even with independent voters. In 2004, Bush lost them narrowly to Democratic nominee John Kerry.
But this year, in contests as diverse as the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Michigan, the Senate race in Pennsylvania, the highly contested House race between Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid and open Republican-held House seats in Arizona and Colorado, polls last week showed Democrats leading among independents by at least 20 percentage points.
A recent Times/Bloomberg survey showed Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown leading GOP Sen. Mike DeWine by a dozen percentage points with independents in Ohio. CNN surveys last week showed Democratic Senate candidates holding leads of seven to nine percentage points with independent voters even in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee, three right-leaning states.
In a compilation of more than 41,000 automated survey interviews conducted last week in competitive congressional districts from coast to coast, the nonpartisan Majority Watch project found that independents preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans by 52 percent to 39 percent.
Mehlman said that despite the national numbers, he believed Republicans in districts with the largest percentage of independent voters, like Reps. Nancy Johnson in Connecticut, Clay Shaw in Florida, or Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia, would survive because they had built strong personal ties to those constituents.
But public surveys last week showed Johnson and Gerlach lagging among independents – and trailing their Democratic challengers. No new public figures were available for Shaw.
In some key contests, the GOP base might be large enough to produce a thin majority even if independents break toward the Democrats. Races on that list could include the Senate contests in Tennessee, and conceivably Missouri and Montana as well as congressional districts that tilt heavily toward the GOP in states such as Kentucky or Nebraska.
Bush is focusing his final travel schedule on such places, with a message aimed at mobilizing Republicans through fiercely worded attacks on Democrats around issues such as taxes, domestic security and Iraq.