Imagining independence

You just gotta love focus groups. You won’t get any quantitative, measurable data out of them but you can get an intriguing sense of what people are thinking, where those thoughts are leading them and just how they might shake up the political world. Years ago a very good researcher advised me to “listen to the music, not the words” when I was sitting in that darkened room behind the one-way glass. It was some of the best political advice I’ve ever had.

Out on the Left Coast this week I’ve been hearing from a lot of voters who live in the real world talk about the political process. “You know, there was a day when the only people who could afford to take enough time off to serve in the legislature were barbers and bartenders,” one of them opined a few nights ago. This independent retiree in the Northwest may not have been speaking a literal truth but he generated a lot of bemused agreement in the room.

This voter’s point was that today’s politicians have lost contact with their constituents — that they no longer have personal interaction at the retail level. That they hire consultants to conduct polls and focus groups and to interpret what spin on issues will win most support (pretty much what I was doing at the time). That they listen to lobbyists who have raised money for their campaigns and meet with interest groups who they think can deliver votes or campaign contributions or both. That they pontificate and legislate with carefully parsed words and procedural votes that can be defended to some and exploited with others.

Out in the real world, they get the joke. Voters have developed what Ernest Hemingway called a “built-in crap detector.” They look at issues with a more sophisticated and jaundiced eye than we often suspect. They try to figure out who is making a claim or a charge, and why. They don’t trust much of what is said in the heat of a campaign, particularly in the closing days. They practice defensive voting. “I haven’t voted for a candidate in years,” I heard another voter say. “I voted against George Bush the last time and I’ll vote against anyone who supports his war.” That observation was coming from a long-time Republican.

So how will this well-developed cynicism play out at the ballot box in 2008? It is foolhardy to speculate 18 months in advance, but of course I’m going to do it anyway. The safest prediction is that voters have decided what they don’t want, and that is more of the same. That is good news for Democrats who will most likely hold onto control of the Congress, possibly with more comfortable margins in both houses. It also means the Democratic nominee, whomever he or she may be, must be the favorite to capture the White House. But it is a very fluid environment out there in the real America.

We know that over 80 percent of voters think our political structure is too polarized to solve the nation’s problems.  Roughly three-quarters say they want a choice other than Democrat or Republican in 2008. Could we be entering the year of the independent?

Unity08, the brainchild of a trio of hardened political veterans, is trying to provide that option. Thousands of supporters ranging from college-aged activists to graying political professionals have signed on board. Unity08 hopes to have recruited 10 million voters to participate in an online nomination process next summer.

Imagine that the Democratic and Republican nomination process does not produce an immediate front-runner but rather results in a muddled field. Or imagine that after a yearlong battle for the nomination voters are burned out on whomever is left standing. Then imagine a movement that gains enough steam to attract someone like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) who is willing to roll the dice that this is a unique moment in history. Yes, it takes quite an imagination, and yes, it requires a lot of groundwork to qualify an independent party for the ballot in enough states to make a difference. But spending a week with voters looking for a way to send a message to a political establishment they feel is ignoring them can open your mind to such possibilities. The words to that song are not yet written, but you can hear faint strains of the melody all across America.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com