Romney rocks the independent vote

In the seesaw battle between presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama, there’s one surprising and rarely discussed constant — Romney is consistently beating the president among voters who consider themselves independent.

That suggests that Romney doesn’t need to pivot dramatically to the center, shed partisan identity or turn his back on the GOP base to gain favor with nonpartisans. He’s already got their tentative but increasingly solidified support.

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According to Talking Points Memo’s poll tracker, there have been 14 major surveys measuring independents’ support over the past two months (excluding the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling and conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports).

In 12 of those 14, Romney has led Obama with the pivotal demographic, and he’s done it by an average of 6.5 percent. That’s not an overwhelming gap, but the consistency of his lead is remarkable, considering that Obama led, overall, in eight of those 14 polls.

In other words, if it were up to independents alone, Romney would be winning this election fairly handily, but when all voters are thrown into the mix, Obama still has the edge.

So far, Romney’s lead with independents can be explained, largely, by Obama’s dismal approval numbers with the unaligned.

In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 39 percent of independents approved of the job the president was doing, while 56 percent disapproved. On the economy he fared even more poorly, with 28 percent approving of his job and 67 percent disapproving.

Further, only 37 percent of independents thought he deserved to be reelected, while 58 percent said he didn’t deserve reelection.

With those kinds of approval numbers, it’s not surprising, then, that Romney beat Obama with independents on nearly every issue polled. He led by 22 points on the economy, 16 points on creating jobs, 5 points on foreign policy, 10 points on healthcare, 26 points on gas prices, 13 points on taxes, 10 points on healthcare and 15 points on immigration.

That’s not an election — it’s an ideological route.

Despite all that, Romney’s overall lead with independents only stood at 7 points, and Obama still beat Romney head to head when all voters (Republicans, Democrats and independents) were taken into account, 
46 percent to 42.

The same pattern held true in the most recent Fox News poll. While Obama led with all voters by 7 points, Romney beat him by 5 points with independents and was also ahead on a number of metrics such as job creation and nominating the next Supreme Court justice.

Once again, the key factor in Obama’s dismal performance seemed to be his approval rating. Fifty-seven percent disapproved of the job he’d done as president, and independents were especially dour about his work on economic issues. Sixty-seven percent didn’t think he’d done a good job on the economy, 64 percent disapproved of his work on job creation and 71 percent disapproved of his handling of the deficit.

It’s not immediately clear, then, how Obama managed to stay within double digits of Romney, but other polling suggests that Obama often makes it competitive by scoring well on more intangible qualities like leadership and personal likability.

Still, overall, the evidence is clear — Romney holds a solid, consistent lead with independents and seems to fit, ideologically, with them better than does Obama.

Those results should immediately dispel one common narrative that’s swirled about since Romney effectively clinched the nomination — that the former Massachusetts governor should manufacture a “Sister Souljah moment.”

That phrase refers to Bill Clinton’s decision to pivot to the center after the 1992 primary by publicly rebuking black hip-hop artist Sister Souljah for controversial remarks on race.

Thus, a “Sister Souljah” moment has come to mean a move to distance oneself from a more extreme portion of the base to curry favor with independents.

There’s nothing to suggest that independents are looking for that kind of moment from Romney. If he were losing independents, there might be some justification, but instead, he’s winning handily.

Even more importantly, he holds big leads with independents on a host of ideological issues, stretching from the economy to immigration. For example, in the Quinnipiac University poll, independents prefer Romney on every issue save one, so it’s not even clear where Romney would create a “Sister Souljah” moment.

In short, there’s nothing to suggest that independents view him as too extreme, and there’s no evidence that Romney’s shift to the right in the primary hurt him with independents.

That’s not to say that the favorable winds couldn’t turn against him or that he won’t face problems stemming from the primary. There’s a large swath of voters who didn’t pay much attention to the nomination fight, and an even larger chunk that probably doesn’t know anything about more specific and important details — like Romney’s support for

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan. Expect the Obama campaign to try to fill in those blanks.

But for now, the Romney campaign is sailing along just fine with independents and can make a push to score gains with more elusive demographics like Hispanic Democrats and single women.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com