Independents Likely Hold the Key to House Control

Independents Likely Hold the Key to House Control
Bill Kelley/MinnPost via AP
Independents Likely Hold the Key to House Control
Bill Kelley/MinnPost via AP
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How important are independent voters to the 2018 midterms? If previous elections are a guide, the party that wins independents will likely win the House majority. Capturing these non-affiliated voters is often essential to winning a swing district -- one that doesn’t have a strong Democratic or Republican majority.  Most of the House races on RealClearPolitics’s toss-up list are in swing districts where independent voters can make all the difference between winning and losing.

Over the last 25 years, control of the House has flipped three times, and the party that won independents was the party that captured the majority. In 1994, Republicans wrested control by achieving a 14-percentage-point advantage among these voters. In 2006, Democrats won independents by 18 points and took over the House. The tables turned again in 2010 when Republicans won independent voters by 19 points, according to research by Dave Winston, a Republican strategist.  "The difference between a GOP victory and a GOP loss wasn’t base turnout,” he said. “It was Republicans’ ability or inability to win independents.” 

In 2016, independents were one of the decisive factors that swung the presidential election to Donald Trump.  While under-reported, Trump carried these voters over Hillary Clinton, 46 percent to 42 percent. In many battleground states, Trump handily won independents by double digits, including Michigan (+16), Wisconsin (+10) and North Carolina (+16).

According to the recent Reuters/Ipsos nationwide online tracking poll, these voters give Trump a 38 percent approval rating, a slightly lower number than his national average of 41 percent (the RCP national average is 43.3 percent). However, independents are favoring the Democrats by 41 percent to 21 percent on the generic ballot, which asks respondents which party they support for Congress. “For the last few months, the generic ballot has been consistently trending in the Democrats’ direction, but independent voters are more volatile, not heavily engaged in the process and tend to be last-minute, late deciders,” said Chris Jackson, director of public polling at Ipsos. He added, “In the last few elections, independents have been evenly split or lean[ed] Republican.”

With the election less than a month away, independent voters are starting to tune in. Accordingly, the GOP is trying to cultivate a national message to capture these voters by contrasting Trump’s accomplishments and ideas with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s agenda. “Independent voters don’t like Nancy Pelosi.  She has a worse job approval rating than President Trump,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster.  “Voters are going to see a campaign to stop Pelosi from becoming speaker.  Her agenda is higher taxes, socialized medicine, open borders, sanctuary cities and more regulations.”

“It’s not going to work,” responded Jeb Fain, spokesperson for Pelosi’s House Majority PAC.  “The GOP is stuck with a deeply unpopular president. This election is ultimately hinging on policy, and the GOP’s economic agenda, from health care to taxes, is in the tank.”

The Democrats have a district-by-district strategy in the hopes of energizing their base to get higher turnout than in previous elections. During the primary process, the party veered left, especially once avowed socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary. “Democrats have gone so far left toward socialism that it’s hard to see how they pull this back to get independent voters,” said Matt Gorman, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

In the 2010 midterms, President Obama tried to energize the base on a district level to get higher turnout; however, it wasn’t enough to stop a wave election in which the GOP took over the House.  That year, “despite better base turnout than [in] 2006, Democrats lost to Republicans by a seven-point margin,” noted Winston.  Appealing to the base won’t overcome a registration disadvantage in swing districts, where candidates need independent voters to win.

Targeting independents is a constant balancing act between motivating the base voter while appealing to centrist independents without diluting partisan enthusiasm.  While no easy act, the candidate who maneuvers this best is likely to win in swing districts, and the party that does the same is likely to hold the House majority come January.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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