You’ve heard of the RINOs, right? The so-called Republicans In Name Only who some on the right want to replace with real conservatives? Perhaps you’ve heard of their oh-so-cleverly coined counterpart slur on the left, DINO. Turns out neither is as important to 2010 as some might believe. The real action, according to a new poll, is on the IINOS — extraordinarily motivated independent voters who are, more often than not, driven to vote for the GOP.
The survey of 1,069 independent voters conducted by Pew last month found that “political independents now favor Republican candidates by about as large a margin as they backed Barack Obama in 2008 and congressional Democratic candidates four years ago.” Independents will swing — after all, they put Obama in the White House and Peolsi in the speaker’s chair — but this year’s independent voter is swinging Republican.
Normally, independent voters don’t get too excited about midterm elections. The off-year vote is usually left largely to partisans who battle for the winning margin in a relatively low turnout cycle. That appears not to be the case this year.
Pew finds that in 2010, “independent voters, who typically are not highly engaged by midterm elections, are now more likely than Democrats to say they are giving a lot of thought to this one.” And “the relatively high level of independent engagement this year has come among those who plan to vote Republican.”
The numbers are stark.
“Fully 64% of independents who plan to vote for the Republican in their district are giving a lot of thought to the election,” Pew reports. “Compared with just 40% of independents who plan to vote for a Democrat.”
Pew’s Michael Dimock, a co-author of the report, told me that the numbers are pretty much unheard of.
“Independents are at least as engaged as they’ve ever been and, in some cases, more engaged then they’ve ever been,” he said. “The fact that they’re giving a lot of thought to an election that’s still two months away is very strange.”
These excited voters, Dimock said, are ready to pull the lever for the GOP, thanks to frustration over the economy, the size of government and “government effectiveness.” That represents a shift to the right among independent voters.
“It’s not a sea change, but independents on many of these things used to be closer to the Democrats,” he said. “Now they’ve shifted to the center or toward the right.”
So what’s responsible for the shift? Dimock says independents are over the Democrats and their time in power. “The bigger factor is it’s a referendum on performance,” Dimock said. “Most [independents] voted for Obama and now, two years later, they feel things aren’t any better.”
Dimock said the tea party movement is partially responsible for turning independents into IINOs this year. “You have to give the tea party movement some credit,” he said. Dimock also said the frustrated conservatives who make up the movement have “polarized” the independent vote that might have fractured in years past.
“I always compare it to ‘92,” Dimock said. Back then, he said, with the economy in shambles, the most frustrated of the independents turned to Ross Perot, who offered them an outlet for their anger at the traditional parties. This year the tea party has grabbed that mantle, and steered those voters toward the GOP.
But the seeds for the destruction of the Republican Party’s newfound friendship with independent voters may have already been sown. For though the independents are with the GOP when it comes to the fiscal vision of tiny government, no taxes and — somehow — a balanced budget at the same time, independents are not ready to embrace the party’s views on social issues. The GOP has been locked in a kind of death-struggle with its values voting past this year, with some Republican leaders warning against making a big deal of the party’s conservative take on gay rights, abortion and other matters while others have sworn a blood oath to the GOP’s moral past.
Social issues are playing a prominent role in the House GOP leadership’s new “Pledge To America,” a fact that could be a long-term problem for Republicans trying to keep independents close.
“The country is ebbing in a liberal direction on those issues,” Dimock said of the social stuff. “Independents are moving right along with that movement.”