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Independents will make or break Biden and the Democrats in November

Winning is not all about the base

Joe Biden won in 2020 because he won the political middle. Now he’s playing to his base, Winston writes.
Joe Biden won in 2020 because he won the political middle. Now he’s playing to his base, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected, Sept. 15 | Commenting on the August inflation numbers Tuesday, the best President Joe Biden could do to buck up the American people was to tell them, “This month, we saw some price increases slow from the month before at the grocery store.” 

He didn’t say that prices are going down. No, Biden’s statement could only make the weak-tea case that some price increases are slowing. And that is the core problem the Democrats face in November. Inflation is eating family budgets alive. 

But so much of what we hear from the media and political pundits isn’t focused on the economy. Instead, political consultants and ad makers in both parties drive hot-button issues that appeal to their respective bases in the belief that winning is all about motivating and turning out the base. 

Anyone who studies election results in depth understands a couple of key points. First, the base will turn out. It always does in both parties. Second, elections are won in the middle.

Yet most political strategies, ad buys and messaging center on base issues with a heavy dose of “fear and loathing” designed to energize the people most likely to turn out anyway. Biden’s recent “Red Speech” is a perfect example.

Yet consultants and the media who focus on which party’s base voters are the most motivated continually miss the larger point. Neither party’s base is big enough to win an election, because winning is not all about the base. It’s about the political center of the country — those people who are not affiliated with either party, namely independents. 

For those who resist this reality, even a cursory look at recent elections proves the point. Despite a dramatic improvement in Republican and conservative turnout for President Donald Trump in 2020, it was independents who played the decisive role in Biden’s win.

Looking at party self-identification over time, the exit polls show that in the 2016 election, the Democratic advantage over Republicans in party ID was 3 points. But in 2020, that margin was reduced to 1. 

In terms of self-identified ideology, in 2016 the margin of conservatives over liberals was 9 points. That margin increased significantly in 2020, to 14 points at the presidential level (15 at the congressional level), meaning the electorate became more conservative. 

So, the makeup of the electorate moved toward Republicans and conservatives, as the Republican base turned out in greater numbers, yet Trump, after winning in 2016, lost despite a significantly better Republican base turnout that delivered a surprisingly strong GOP showing at the congressional level. 

The obvious question is: If the Republican base turned out in larger numbers, what happened to Trump? He lost independents. In the 2016 election, exit polls showed that Trump won independent voters by 4 points. But in 2020, Biden won them by 13 — a sizable shift that played the key role in determining the outcome. 

The last major party presidential candidate to lose independents by a larger margin than Trump was Walter Mondale in 1984.

The minus 17-point shift in Trump’s overall margin among independents was even worse in key battleground states. For example, in Michigan and Wisconsin the shift in the margin with independents was minus 22 points, while in Georgia it was minus 20. 

Biden beat Trump because he won the political middle by a decisive margin. All of which makes his decision to focus on Democratic base issues as president a real conundrum. His liberal legislative agenda, which has ignored if not exacerbated the top issue of the economy, has been a huge negative with the very independents who put him over the top. 

He started off in a good position, as most newly elected presidents do. In the February 2021 Winning the Issues survey (WTI), 48 percent of independents approved of the job he was doing and 30 percent disapproved. That has now flipped dramatically. In the most recent WTI (Sept. 9–11, 2022), his job approval among them is now 29 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove. This trend is also seen in his economic job approval. In the February 2021 survey, independents approved by a 43 percent to 38 percent margin; now they disapprove by an overwhelming 25 percent to 64 percent margin. 

So, who are these independent voters anyway? What drives them and their vote?

They are likely to make up 28 percent to 30 percent of the midterm electorate this fall, based on past three midterm Edison exit polls. They are skeptical of what they perceive to be political messaging and spin, especially negative ads, and they like bipartisanship that gets things done in Washington on important issue priorities. But at the moment, 41 percent of them have an unfavorable view of both parties. 

Independents tend to prioritize the economy as their top issue and have particular concerns about government spending and the national deficit. In this week’s WTI survey, 44 percent said that the economy/inflation (including jobs and gas prices) was their top issue. No other issue breaks into double digits. Independents also believe, by an overwhelming margin, that the economy is headed in the wrong direction (15 percent right direction to 68 percent wrong track), and only 13 percent believe that inflation will be better by the end of the year.

Sixty-seven percent of independents believe the statement that “inflation has been over 8 percent for the last five months.” This week, the country hit over 8 percent inflation six months in a row. 

When asked what costs were the top problem, 38 percent said food costs, with gas prices second at 19 percent and household utilities and goods at 10 percent. 

Seventy-six percent of independent voters don’t believe that gas prices are now reasonable. 

All of which raises the obvious question of how important independents will be this November given Biden’s overall negative job approval with this crucial group.

In the 1994 Republican win of the House, the GOP carried independents by 14 points. In 2006, when Republicans lost the House and Senate, Democrats won independents by 18. Then, in 2010, Republicans regained the House, winning independents by 19 points. And finally, when Democrats took the House in 2018, they won independents by 12. 

If history is a good predictor, independents, not the two bases, will determine which party comes out the winner on Nov. 8. 

This report was corrected to accurately reflect how many presidential candidates have lost independents by a larger margin than Donald Trump.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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