As Is Their Habit, Independents Seem to Be Breaking Against the Incumbent

In politics it is always important to keep your ears open and your antenna fully extended. When you have won the presidency with fewer votes than your major-party competitor, by a margin of about 78,000 votes in three states out of 137 million cast nationwide, one can’t afford to be tone deaf about what those who did not vote for you are saying.

Eddie Mahe, one of the great general consultants that the Republican Party ever had, used to write a periodical analysis of where things stood in terms of national and international politics, economics, and society, then use that as a benchmark to look for changes that might have gone unnoticed or underappreciated. Mahe passed away last month at age 83.

Some of the public opinion research over the last month or two reveals that we may be reaching the kind of inflection point that Mahe would have appreciated. The country is still beset by a pandemic that won't go away, and voters already give President Trump poor marks for his handling of it. A week ago, Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization wrote an analysis noting that, on the question of what is the most important problem facing the country—which Gallup has been asking since 1939 (and monthly since 2001)—their May 28-June 4 survey showed the issue of race relations had soared to its highest percentage since July 1968, the last time we had protests as widespread and occasionally violent as they have been in the last month.

On top of that, the June 11-15 national survey by the venerable National Opinion Research Center and the Associated Press indicated that two-thirds of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of race relations and just 32 percent approved. While race relations have never been viewed as Trump’s strong suit—his approval on this issue had dipped into the low 30s before—it is clearly a lot more important today than it was a month ago.

Trump’s Tulsa rally Saturday night underscored that while he excels at throwing red-meat rhetoric to his base, who clearly lap it up, it will do little for him with the independent voters who are more likely to affect the outcome. His base will turn out and his hold on the Republican vote is firm, but that just isn’t enough.

When Trump won 46 percent of the vote nationwide, 2 points behind Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent, he did it in part by winning the 31 percent of the vote that exit polls showed was cast by independents, 46 to 42 percent. Staying within 2 points of Clinton nationally kept him within range to squeak out his two-tenths-of-a-point win in Michigan and seven-tenths-of-a-point margins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

What many don’t appreciate is that voters who consider themselves independent have a tendency to vote for change in every presidential election. 2016 marked the fifth consecutive election in which independents have voted in favor of the party not holding the White House, by an average of 4 percentage points. In 2000, when Al Gore was trying to hold onto the White House for Democrats after Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidency, independents voted for George W. Bush from the opposition Republican Party by 2 points, 48 to 46 percent. Four years later, independents again sided with the opposition party, but just by a point, going for John Kerry over Bush by 49 to 48 percent. In 2012, Mitt Romney won independents by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent. So independents’ move against Hillary Clinton should not have been surprising.

Now consider that 66 percent of independent voters in the last Fox News poll disapproved of Trump's job performance so far, to just 29 percent who approved. In fact, 49 percent of independents strongly disapproved and another 17 percent somewhat disapproved.

When I first got involved in politics 48 years ago, I learned that politics was about addition; it certainly wasn’t about subtraction or division. Right now, Americans seem to be looking for someone to unite, not divide the country. While one can argue that Trump must now lay in the bed he made, it may well be Republicans downballot who pay the price just as much. It makes me wonder about the wisdom of so many people in the GOP establishment who opted to sit on the sidelines while a hostile takeover by a newcomer to the party was underway. To a certain extent they paid the price by losing the House majority in 2018, but right now their Senate majority looks to be in just as much danger.

For Democrats who clamor for Joe Biden to get out there and campaign, to be more visible, to launch an aggressive agenda, the reality is that every day he stays close to home and mostly out of the news is a day he is closer to being president of the United States. The current president is running against himself and losing.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on June 23, 2020