The Romney conundrum: Winning independents but losing overall


There are two competing factors at work for Mitt Romney among independents. 

One is that he’s winning their vote, but the other is that they’re less enthused about voting, and that malaise is damaging Romney’s overall performance in polls.

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Romney edges out President Obama among independents by 1.2 percentage points in Talking Points Memo’s aggregation of national polls, even though the president leads the GOP nominee, overall, by 3.9. That’s because independents tend to be less enthusiastic about voting than supporters of either party, and so they’re having a smaller effect on overall preference.

The phenomenon of Romney winning independents but losing overall is one that’s persisted since early in the cycle. When the general election effectively began in April, Romney led among independents in 12 of the first 14 surveys, even though he trailed in most of those polls among all voters.

That phenomenon continues to play out, even after both parties have completed their conventions. Since September began, Romney has led among independents in five major national polls, while Obama has led in just two.

And during that time, Romney has done something with independents Obama has yet to do — lead among them by double digits. In fact, post-Democratic National Convention, a CBS/New York Times poll had Romney up by 11 percentage points with independents, while a CNN survey had him up by 14. Meanwhile, Obama led overall by 3 in the CBS poll and 

6 in the CNN survey.

Simply put, Romney is winning nationally with independents, but they’re not playing their usual tiebreaking role in elections.

As political junkies know, however, the election will be won and lost in battleground states, and the phenomenon shows up in these prized possessions, as well.

Take Ohio, which many consider to be the most important state. Many polls don’t provide detailed breakdowns, but in the surveys that do, Romney generally leads with independents but loses overall.

For example, in Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS’s most recent survey of Ohio, the president is up by a solid 6 points, overall, but Romney leads among independents by 5. In the University of Cincinnati’s most recent poll of Ohio, Obama leads by 3 percentage points, but Romney routs him among independents by 12.

In fact, Romney has won the independent vote in four of the five most recent Ohio surveys, even while losing, overall, in four of those five surveys.

That trend shows up in other battleground states. In the most recent survey of New Hampshire, TV station WMUR found Obama leading among all voters, 45 percent to 40, even though Romney led by 4 points among independents.

In Wisconsin, the most recent Quinnipiac poll of the state gave Obama a 6 percent lead, overall, while Romney led by 5 percentage points among independents.

Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin all mirror national results in telling a fairly compelling, consistent story — Romney is still ahead with independents.

But here’s the big caveat to that encouraging news for the GOP nominee — independents seem less likely to vote.

Take the case of Ohio and Quinnipiac’s most recent poll. Only 23 percent of independents said they were more excited about this year’s election than elections in past years. That pales in comparison to the 34 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans who said they were more excited. 

Head just northwest of Ohio to Wisconsin, and you’ll find similar numbers in Quinnipiac’s survey of the Badger State. Only 29 percent of independents said they’re more excited this year than in past election years — a low number for a heavily covered race. 

That low level of enthusiasm is bad news for Romney, particularly in battleground states like Ohio and Wisconsin. That’s because Democrats hold a registration advantage in most Midwestern states, and Romney needs independents badly to make up that gap. If they don’t turn out, then Obama wins, hands down. 

So why aren’t independents enthusiastic about this election, and how can Romney get them excited?

First, academic research has suggested that independent voters are turned off by negative advertising. In their book Negative Campaigning: An Analysis of U.S. Senate Elections, Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper found that Democratic and Republican turnout rose as negative campaigning increased, but independent turnout fell.

In other words, negative campaigning stirs a party’s base to vote, but depresses those without political affiliation.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that independents feel so dour about this election. The Washington Post reports that, as of last month, negative ads made up roughly 75 percent of all political spots run in this presidential cycle. You can bet that independents are noticing, and tuning this race out.

So how can Romney inspire the independents who favor him to get enthused and actually vote for him? Well, theory suggests he could raise their enthusiasm by delivering a more positive message.

Such an effort might be complicated, however, by a leaked tape of Romney at a fundraiser earlier this year where the former governor made the controversial claim that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on government” and believe they’re “victims.”

Whether independents agree or disagree, some have compared Romney’s comments to Obama’s 2008 claim that some voters “cling to guns or religion” because they’re disgruntled by the economy.

In both cases, the presidential nominees were delivering a private message that was considerably sharper and more partisan than their public images, and each reinforced the notion that politicians say and mean very different things. That breeds cynicism, particularly among independents who are already leery of a particular party or creed.