Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Independent Voter

Megan McArdle:

Every time we have an election, the partisans confuse the fact that the independents disliked the opposition candidate, with the idea that the independents joined their party. The independents did not want to stomp the Democrats in 2004, and they do not want to stomp the Republicans now. They are not interested in advancing the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party, any more than they were preparing to hand the Republicans a "permanent majority" in 2004. And when the various parties act as if it is so--as if the independents had actually voted to join their power-hungry two-minutes-hate, rather than voting for the guy they thought would best shelter them from the vicissitudes of fate . . . well, for the last few elections, they've had their asses handed to them on a silver platter two years later.

Yes. McArdle's original point was that partisans take such an election to be a broad mandate for the destruction of the other party. I agree with her on that point: just because Republicans have been handed electoral defeat does not mean the independent voters want their destruction, are stomping them out.

In order for independent voters to be satisfied one way or the other, one basic thing must happen: they must be satisfied that one guy is better than the other guy.

Now, if one guy sounds like the guy who's in power, and people are unhappy at the people in power, that guy will probably lose. But, the other guy has to show that he is going to be better. So: loser must be shown to be bad, and winner must be shown to be better.

I mean, that's basically the heart of the election. John McCain did not manage to distinguish himself enough with Bush, and Barack Obama managed to convince people that he (despite inexperience and, for some people, despite race) would be better.

That's what happened. And ironically enough, the catch-word in this election was change. Not just from the Republican Party (which is what I loathed about Dean's "Anyone But Bush" approach) but to something. And Change encapsulated changing the Democrats too--after all, the Democratic Congress was the one that set the record of unpopularity, beyond the Republican ones under Bush. Independent voters are very open to change. In four years from now, they may change back, if they feel like it.

What makes a party partisan is an ideology; ideology implies a long-term sense of history. Party partisans think they see into the future and see the past clearly; they think that an election is a referendum on ideology. How much of the actual debates, the actual campaign ads, etc. are actually devoted to the esoteric field of political philosophy? Not much. That is left to the politicians and the highly informed journalists; to the partisans and to the people who speak their language.

The independent voter, on the other hand, is looking at today's problems and looking at the candidate's in terms of today's solutions. That's why they're accused of having a short memory span; for instance, when John McCain made his talking points "earmarks" I think people looked at that and said, "Yeah, that's nice, but that's not today's problem." Terrorism as a concern came in at 8% because, well, only 8% of Americans are actually concerned about it at the moment. Duh. Today's problem is not terrorism: it's the economy. It's the Iraq War. It's health care.

In the year 2000, what were the problems on people's minds? I can't really point to anything specific over all. After all, we were still riding the gravy train. The result? A near 50-50 election. Why? Because it didn't really matter one way or the other. Now, if someone had sorted through the difference in Bush's ideology and Gore's ideology they would have probably come to a clear decision one way or the other. But most independent voters don't. That's what makes them independent.

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