GOP reform would net independents

Republicans longing for good news could find a lot to ponder in the latest Pew Research report, issued last Thursday. The gist of the story was not that Republicans have tanked — though GOP ID is at an abysmally low 22 percent — nor that everyone else has become a Democrat. No, the story is that independents have assumed what Pew calls “center stage” in the American political drama. If Republicans are game, almost four in 10 voters are waiting for the spotlight, begging for the affections of the two parties. Will Republicans give the indies their props?

A successful courtship of independents will start with the understanding that not all will be interested. For example, Pew finds that 17 percent of independents already are leaning toward the Democrats. Twelve percent of independents lean Republican, so that slice of independents should be given first priority in the targeting process. Beyond these leaners, the next-easiest group to harvest should be the self-described “conservative” independents, a group that Pew says has actually grown, from 26 percent of independents in 2005 and 28 percent in 2007 to 33 percent today. While Pew dismisses this trend as merely reflecting the movement of disaffected Republicans into the independent column, it still suggests that if Republicans can regain their credibility on key conservative issues and polish up the party’s image, there are some relatively easy pickings to move back our way.

On issues, Pew identifies three dimensions on which independents are more likely to side with Republicans than Democrats: social programs; equality of opportunity; and confidence in government. The last of these three is particularly important. Independents now are even right of the Republicans when it comes to their perceptions of government responsiveness. If Republicans would just pick up the banner of reform and work to make government at all levels more accountable, responsive, transparent and open to the everyday needs of ordinary citizens, the potential for garnering reciprocal support from independents would be huge.

Independent status goes beyond, I believe, skepticism about government and its institutions. It spills over into a broader rejection of politics and public affairs. Pew notes that independents score much lower than either Democrats or Republicans on an index of political interest and engagement. Why is this? Some would say it is simply generational, that independents are younger. There’s no doubt that this explains a portion of independents’ withdrawal from politics. But it cannot completely explain the phenomenon. The average age of independents is almost 44, up from 41 in 1990. More than one-third of independents are 50 or over. So there is a sizable number of mature citizens unwilling to side with either political party. I suspect that if either party adopted a genuine reform agenda, it could woo some of these older independents as well as their younger peers, inducing them to reconnect with the political process.

Pew’s work on income and independents is particularly interesting. Independents are the largest partisan category in every income category except the two lowest quintiles, below $40,000 annual household income. And it’s only in the lowest quintile, below $20,000, that Democrats dominate. Republicans, on the other hand, trail independents in every one of the top four quintiles. The slice that particularly annoys me is the fourth quintile, householders with an income from $65,000 to $100,000 annually, a category that should be solidly upper-middle-class from a GOP perspective. But Pew finds that 36 percent of this group is independent while just 30 percent is Republican. These next-to-the-top income earners are not so rich that they can afford to be limousine liberal independents, but they pay taxes, own businesses and manage our institutions. They should be the backbone of the Republicans, but they’re backing away. Will we give them a reason to come home?

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.