The Forgotten Swing Voter

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Mitt Romney’s loss to Rick Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri demonstrates that the former Massachusetts governor is still not connecting to the electorate and has yet to offer a positive vision for how he would govern the country.

Newt Gingrich, who is also running a starkly negative campaign, has similarly offered no clear guidance about specific policies and programs he would pursue as president.

Neither President Barack Obama nor the leading GOP candidates are addressing the issues that matter to the constituency likely to decide the election — independents and swing voters.

Obama is essentially reprising basic left-wing themes: populism, redistributive policies and class-based politics — with an emphasis on standing up for the middle class against the GOP, perceived as systematically focused on the needs of the wealthy and powerful.

He is demonstrating artful use of the politics of demonization — without any effort to build consensus or offer a real plan for the future. The president’s rhetoric in his State of the Union address was lofty with calls for unity, but he struck a defiant tone — complete with a millionaire’s tax. He also attacked banks, oil companies and, of course, Congress and politicians.

Meanwhile, Republicans remain equally out of touch with voters in the middle. They continue debating the principles of free-market capitalism and Washington influence-peddling — looking backward rather than forward.

Neither party focuses on issues that matter most to people: reviving the economy, promoting job creation, balancing the budget, reducing debt and taking on entitlements. Both Republicans and Democrats are virtually ignoring the concerns of swing voters, now close to 20 percent of the electorate, and independents, now at least 40 percent of the electorate and, according to Gallup, the single largest voting bloc.

These two groups share similar interests. And both give Republican and Democratic leaders net negative ratings.

Independents disapprove of how Obama is doing his job, 52 percent to 37 percent, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Just 31 percent had a favorable opinion of Obama, with two-thirds saying he has not made progress fixing the economy. Six in 10 independents say Obama does not share their priorities for the country.

The president’s improved standing in the recent Washington Post poll has probably been overstated and has more to do with Romney’s weakness than with some dramatic turnaround in Obama’s own numbers. A majority of independents still disapprove of his job performance and a clear majority of the electorate disapproves of his handling of the economy, his performance in creating jobs and his efforts to balance the budget.

Independents have similar negative impressions of leading GOP presidential candidates Romney and Gingrich, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Independents look unfavorably on Romney, 51 percent to 23 percent, and have an unfavorable impression of Gingrich, 53 percent to 23 percent.

Another ominous sign for Romney, still the presumed nominee, is that voter turnout decreased about 15 percent in Florida’s primary from four years ago, and almost 40 percent of the voters said they were not satisfied with the current field.

It’s crucial the GOP candidates address these voter concerns. A recent national survey I conducted sheds light on who the swing voters are and what they want from government — which meshes closely with the independents’ policy preferences.

I isolated swing voters by looking at those voters who supported Bill Clinton in an imaginary trial heat against Romney but didn’t support Obama in a trial heat against Romney. This came to 15 percent of the electorate.

In a two-way race for president between Clinton and Romney, an overwhelming majority prefers Clinton, 60 percent to 24 percent. Meanwhile, between Obama and Romney, voters split almost evenly — with Obama at 45 percent and Romney at 43 percent.

A detailed assessment of swing voters shows that they are not liberal Democrats. Over three-quarters (76 percent) are moderates or conservatives, and close to two-thirds (65 percent) are Republicans or independents. Slightly less than half (49 percent) are Southerners.

This data underscore the voters’ desire for politicians who advocate for bipartisanship and coalition-building in a polarized country. The substantial degree of support for Clinton versus Romney shows that the more bipartisan, centrist and fiscally conservative the appeal, the broader the support.

A Third Way survey conducted after the midterms supports my findings. Sixty percent of voters who supported Obama in 2008, but voted Republican in 2010, feel that Obama is too liberal. About 66 percent say that Obama and the Democrats in Congress tried to have government do too much.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll released late last year also shows that the electorate believes Obama is too far left ideologically. Americans were asked to rate their own ideology as well as that of the major presidential candidates on a 5-point scale. Most rated themselves at 3.3 (slightly right of center), and Obama at 2.3 (left of center) — further away than all other major presidential candidates. A majority of Americans, 57 percent, see Obama as liberal, while only 23 percent see him as moderate.

Indeed, recent polling shows that independents want to rein in the size and scope of government. Gallup reports that 64 percent of independents say Big Government is the biggest threat to the country. Which may be one reason for Santorum’s growing support. Three-quarters are dissatisfied with the size and power of the federal government, while just 24 percent are satisfied.

Other polling shows that these voters want policies that emphasize economic growth and budget reduction. In the wake of the crippling economic downturn, 82 percent believe it is extremely or very important to expand the economy, according to recent Gallup polling. Seventy percent say the federal budget deficit should be cut by a combination of spending cuts and modest tax increases — with many polls showing these voters feel spending cuts are key.

Independents do not support more government spending. My polling last year shows independents believe government should refrain from spending money to stimulate the economy, given the large deficit we face, 62 percent to 24 percent.

Independents, according to Gallup, are looking for government to expand the economy (82 percent), and promote equality of opportunity (69 percent). They are not looking for government to promote equality of outcome, since just 43 percent say they want to reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor. By 50 percent to 47 percent, they say the divide between the rich and the poor is an acceptable part of the economic system.

So it’s clear what these voters are looking for, and also that neither party is addressing their concerns. To be sure, independent voters want conciliation and compromise. Some are more conservative and market-oriented. Others are ready to accept government stimulus spending for our economic recovery. But all share the desire for economic growth, job creation and a path to fiscal stability.

The two parties cannot continue to ignore swing voters. Without them, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to win in November. Moreover, to win without addressing their concerns will almost certainly promise four more years of the same gridlock.

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