The hottest political growth stock these last six months has been that of "independents." A recent Pew Research Center study found that "the percentage of self-described political independents has steadily climbed, on a monthly basis, from 30 percent last December to 39 percent in April." That, Pew adds, is a 70-year high.
Not surprisingly, Pew found that the Republican party has lost many disgruntled conservatives (and some moderates) to the ranks of the independents in recent years. But Democrats, too, began vacating their premises during the new president's traditional honeymoon period, falling from 39 percent in December to 36 percent in February to 33 percent in April. Talk about separate bedrooms! Because their ranks are exploding with the disgruntled from both major parties, one would not expect independents as a whole to move very far ideologically in one direction or the other -- unless, that is, something is going on here.
Writing last year in the Wall Street Journal, John P. Avlon described independents as "fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and strong on national security. They believe in putting patriotism over partisanship and the national interest over special interests." The Pew study concluded that "an increasing share of independents describe their views as conservative."
This should set off alarm bells in Washington's Democratic-party establishment. After all, the front pages swim in stories that must alienate those independents who pulled the lever last year for President Obama and moderate Democratic candidates for Congress. Headlines trumpeting unprecedented levels of federal spending and debt, frightening government power grabs and bailouts, and quiescence in the face of North Korean missile launches seem custom-made to rankle these voters.
A close review of recent polling sheds some light on what might be happening. On questions as varied as Uncle Sam's bailout of the automotive industry, the tradeoff between environmental protection and protecting jobs, the importance of free trade, and whether the best way to preserve the peace is through military strength, independent voters have been trending to the ideological right over the past six months.
According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, voters now believe Republicans are the party best able to handle the economy. Here, the GOP moved from a five-point deficit (39 percent to 44 percent) in February to a six-point advantage (45 percent to 39 percent) in June. Independent voters, in particular, now give the Republicans a decisive 49 percent to 24 percent edge, a 19-point improvement since those early, heady days of the Obama honeymoon. But Republicans shouldn't uncork their champagne prematurely: Most of this change reflects dissatisfaction with the Democrats rather than a decisive shift to the Republicans.
On taxes, Republicans improved slightly among voters as a whole, from a three-point edge in February (44 percent to 41 percent) to a five-point advantage now (44 percent to 39 percent). The most dramatic shifts since February occurred among younger voters (who now favor the GOP by a slight, but nevertheless surprising, 38 percent to 35 percent margin) and among voters with incomes between $20,000 and $75,000.
Voters with incomes $75,000 or higher seem to have internalized the president's oft-stated vow not to raise taxes on anyone with income below $250,000. They actually swung toward the Democrats these last four months. In February, voters with incomes over $100,000, for example, favored the GOP on the tax issue by 55 percent to 39 percent. Now, they give a modest 46 percent to 43 percent thumbs-up to the Democrats.
Independents, by contrast, moved away from the Democrats and are now one of the GOP's strongest voter groups on the tax issue. The percentage of independents that see the Democrats as best able to handle tax issues dropped from 29 percent in February to only 19 percent now. The Republican share didn't gain from the Democratic share's loss, though; it held firm at just below 50 percent.
The Rasmussen surveys also offer some valuable insights into the looming debate on health-care reform. While the Democrats retain a still-formidable 10-point advantage on this issue (down from a 15-point edge in February), an intriguing subplot -- again concerning independents -- has emerged. A year ago, independents sided enthusiastically with the Democrats on health care, preferring them by an overwhelming 51 percent to 26 percent margin. By Election Day 2008, that 25-point advantage had slimmed to 15 points. In February, with talk of big-government health-care reform in the air, the Democrats' margin with independents declined again, to a modest five-point edge. Today, the two parties split independents right down the middle, with the Democrats laying claim to only 38 percent and the Republicans holding firm at 37 percent. To the extent that these voters, who despise deficit spending, high taxes, and government waste of any kind, see the health-care debate as morphing into a traditional tax-and-spend brouhaha, this shift may be a long-lasting one.
Independents have also given serious thought to what they have seen these past few months on the national-security front. Once again, they find the Democrats and their approach wanting. A year ago, Republicans enjoyed a six-point edge with independents as the party best able to handle national-security issues (including the War on Terror). That advantage held firm through the early days of the Obama administration. But in the latest Rasmussen survey, independents abandoned the Democrats en masse and now favor the Republicans by a robust 27-point margin, 52 percent to 25 percent.
This move to the GOP turned up in a recent series of Rasmussen polls that probed voters' attitudes on the "natural tension between protecting individual rights and national security." Rasmussen asked voters whether "our legal system [worries] too much about protecting individual rights, too much about protecting national security, or [gets] the balance about right?" A year ago Americans were evenly split on the question, 32 percent to 32 percent. Independents, interestingly, behaved more like Democrats, saying we worried too much about national security by a 37 percent to 30 percent margin. Now, Americans think we pay too much attention to individual liberties by a margin of 39 percent to 24 percent. Significantly, independents today look much more like Republicans on this important issue, with 42 percent saying individual liberties get too much attention and only 26 percent saying we pay too much attention to national security.
Independents seem particularly moved by the high-profile debate over enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorists. According to Gallup, that debate may be the source of former vice president Dick Cheney's recent surge among independents, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi's equally stunning fall among these voters. According to a late May 2009 Gallup survey, Cheney's favorability rating nearly doubled among independents, rising from 21 percent in March to 37 percent in May. Pelosi's favorability among independents trended in exactly the opposite direction, plunging from 37 percent to 21 percent.
All this tells us that independents -- who now outnumber adherents of either national political party -- have become exceptionally fertile ground for conservatives. Tilling that soil is the essential first step to preserving our freedoms.
Mike Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in National Review Online