Independents won't save Mitt

Romney backers keep hoping his lead among independents means undecided voters will break his way. It's an illusion

Published November 1, 2012 12:18PM (EDT)

To paint a scenario in which Mitt Romney is elected president next Tuesday, Republicans need to explain either how they’ll generate a last-minute wave of momentum or how the polls that show their candidate lagging in states he has to win are flawed.

The momentum bit is a tough sell. Romney made real polling strides in the wake of the first debate on Oct. 3, erasing the lead Barack Obama has enjoyed in the national horse race for the entire campaign and improving his own Electoral College outlook. But that momentum expired somewhere in the middle of the month, and since then the race has been frozen in place, with the candidates tied nationally (or with Romney ahead by a fraction of a point) and with Obama holding steady leads in Ohio and Wisconsin, one of which Romney pretty much must pick off to have a chance next week.

Plus, with Sandy and its aftermath dominating the news this week, and with one of Romney’s top surrogates, Chris Christie, publicly vouching for Obama’s leadership, it’s a lot easier to see Obama being the beneficiary of any late momentum than Romney.

So that leaves flawed polls, and on this front the right has found something to latch onto: Romney’s support among independent voters. Poll after poll has shown the GOP nominee beating -- and in some cases crushing – Obama among independents, in both the national horse race and in key states. An NPR poll earlier this week, for instance, put Romney 12 points ahead of the president with independents, 51 to 39 percent, and a CBS/New York Times survey found the exact same result. A Monmouth University poll last week pegged Romney’s independent lead at 19 points.

Overall, however, these polls (and others like them) all show what amounts to a dead heat, with Romney ahead – at best – by a couple of points. This has given rise to claims from the right that pollsters are making a giant mistake by including far too many Democrats in their samples – a number far out of whack with what we’ll actually see on Election Day.

Rush Limbaugh spent a chunk of his show on Tuesday making this case, while the Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost argues that Obama is the underdog next week because “[s]ince 1972, the first year of exit polling, no candidate for president has won election while losing independents by such a wide margin. Even some neutral media observers are chiming in, with Time’s Mark Halperin calling Romney’s independent support the “strongest argument” his campaign can make about his positioning in the race.

On the surface, what they’re saying makes sense. We know what a significant share of the electorate independents make up. How could a candidate for whom they’re breaking so decisively be essentially tied nationally and behind in the key swing states?

Actually, there’s a reasonable answer: The term “independent” is a lot more fluid than most people realize. When it comes to their voting behavior, most independents are actually partisans, regularly favoring one party or the other. Very few are authentic swing voters. Plus, when it comes to polling, party label is a matter of self-identification. Pollsters don’t seek out a fixed number of Democrats, Republicans and independents, and people won’t always provide the same answer when asked; that is, a registered Democrat might call himself a Democrat one day and an independent the next.

In the case of the Romney-Obama race, this suggests that a disproportionate number of functionally Republican voters are identifying themselves as independents instead of Republicans – and, perhaps, that a disproportionate share of functionally Democratic voters are calling themselves Democrats, and not independents. This would explain why Romney is doing so well among independents without gaining a comparable edge overall. It would also explain why pollsters seem to be “oversampling” Democrats.

As for why this would be happening, Josh Marshall points to a logical explanation: Since the last presidential election, there’s been a decline in the number of adults who call themselves Republicans and a corresponding spike in the number who call themselves independents. This coincides with the rise of the Tea Party movement, which amounted to a war against the Republican establishment by the conservative grass roots. There’s no absolute proof of a connection here, but as Marshall notes, it’s hardly unreasonable to suggest that a large number of conservatives who formerly identified themselves as Republicans now call themselves independents – even though their voting behavior hasn’t changed.

I ran this by Patrick Murray, who conducts the Monmouth poll, and he added that Republicans in general are more likely to make it through pollsters’ likely voter screens, since – on the whole – Republicans are more motivated than Democrats to vote in this election. This would extend to “covert” Republicans – that is, functional Republicans who call themselves independent – and further pad Romney’s numbers with independents.

In other words, it’s perfectly plausible that Romney could clean up among independents next Tuesday and still lose.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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