The battle for the independents

Dateline: 27 February 2008

There are more registered Democrats than Republicans. The gap is nowhere near as big as in the 1970s and 80s, when Republicans nonetheless carried four of the five presidential elections, and by big margins every time, but the gap is real. Not only that, with an unpopular president at the head of the Party and a presidential candidate who is distrusted by a large portion of the base, the GOP is feeling less than enthusiastic. After losing two knife-edge presidential polls and then, finally, recapturing Congress the Democrats are upbeat. The Party will make history by nominating either a woman or an African American for President. It seems like a good year to be a Democrat.

But a third of the population is not registered to either party. This group narrowly favored George Bush at the last two elections. It will decide this year’s poll too. John McCain has always been popular with independents. Will it be enough to give him victory?

Hillary Clinton is certainly a polarizing figure. She is not liked by independents and hated by Republicans. Even within her own party there are many who dislike her. She is, probably, the opponent John McCain would prefer. But with Barack Obama finally cutting into her base of blue-collar Democrats in last week’s Wisconsin primary, and polls narrowing in states such as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Clinton has long led, it is now unlikely that she will be the Democrats’ standard bearer. She will finish the primary season trailing Obama in elected delegates, with a slim – but, tantalizingly, not an arithmetically impossible – chance at the nomination.

Polls suggest that Obama has considerable appeal to independents. These voters say they like him. But it is far from clear that they vote for him. In primary elections, where votes are cast by a broad electorate in secret, Clinton and Obama are running about even. He has carried more states and territories but she has taken the larger ones. In caucuses, where only hard core Democrats vote and they do so in public, his lead is stunning – he has won 13 out of 14 such votes, and often by very big margins.

Obama’s base, therefore, appears to be highly motivated party activists. Independents and swing voters may say they favor him, but given the chance they actually vote for Clinton. This may be a modern version of a tendency christened the Bradley-Wilder effect after black gubernatorial candidates in California and Virginia. Nobody likes to be thought a racist, so people tell pollsters they plan to vote for the black candidate. But when people actually cast their secret ballots the big polling leads evaporate.

Obama is also less thoroughly tested and vetted than either Clinton or McCain. He is new to the national scene. Few people know of his hard line liberal policies. His rhetoric may seek the center, but his positions are to the far left of the Democratic caucus in the Senate. How Obama will actually fare in a tough race against a popular Republican contender remains to be seen.

McCain will seal the nomination on March the fourth. Obama just might do the same. But he may not become the candidate for months, and McCain may have staked a pretty solid claim on the center ground by then.

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