JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 26, 2011
Can President Obama fire up his base without alienating independent voters? It would seem difficult, given that the base is a lot more liberal than people who call themselves independent. But Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky, channeling pollster Guy Molyneux, thinks the two groups actually have a lot in common:
Democrats often make a terrible mistake in thinking that base Democrats and independents have completely opposing interests. Democrats tend to think of independents as Republicans Lite. This is true on some issues. ... But independents aren’t that monolithic. ... First, they take some conservative positions and some progressive ones. ... You can see from it that while independents as a group are astonishingly right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans on a number of questions, there are a few on which they’re closer to Democrats, like protecting Social Security and being open to some defense cuts. But there’s something else important to them. “They also want someone who can run things, a person who can make things work,” Molyneux says. ...
Rather than trying to cater to independents’ presumed ideological preferences, Republicans try to say things that will resonate with independents’ emotional posture. Remember Bush in 2004. What did he say to woo independents? “You might not always agree with me, but you know where I stand.” It was a line that traded exactly on this quality independents look for that Molyneux describes. And it worked well enough—the guy won. What Democrats say to independents is precisely the opposite. Democrats say, “You might not know where I stand, but I’m always trying to look like I agree with you!” It’s kind of pathetic. And it’s the same old Democratic error of trying to win people over intellectually rather than emotionally.
There is, then, a way for Obama to inspire both the base and swing voters, and it’s absurdly simple: he needs to accentuate the items on which the two groups more or less agree and fight hard for them. I’d call it a radical stylistic posture on behalf of an ideologically modest agenda.
This makes sense to me, particularly given conversations I've had lately with average voters (i.e., people outside of Washington and not in the business of politics) who consider themselves independent. The criticism of Obama I keep hearing isn't about policy. It's about posture. They think he's too weak, that he's "not getting things done," etc.
A lot of this reflects unhappiness with the state of the economy, obviously. And if you are suspicious of anecdotal evidence from such a self-selected group, well, you should be. But it's consistent with Tomasky's analysis.