The “independent voter” variable

Qunnipiac’s new poll of Ohio, taken in conjunction with CBS News,  is the latest example of a widespread trend: it shows Barack Obama ahead in the state by 5 points, but Mitt Romney has a 7-point lead with independents.  The momentum is all Romney’s way, as Obama was 10 points ahead in the same poll just a month ago, and his lead with female voters (actually, the “gender cap” applies almost entirely to single women, as CBS points out) is down to 15 percent, from 25 percent in September.

There are lots of polls, both nationally and in battleground states, that show the race in a statistical dead heat, but give Romney a 7- to 9-point edge among “independents.”  It is generally thought that  a lead with indie voters is the key to victory.  Obama won them by eight points against McCain in 2008.  So how can this race be tight in hotly-contested states when Romney has a comparably wide lead among independents?

The simple answer is the conventional wisdom about 2012 being a “base turnout” election.  The highly motivated Republican and Democrat bases will turn out in droves, swamping independent voters.  Quite a few polls have been giving Obama at least the same turnout model from the 2008 election, if not even better, producing Democrat over-samples of +8 and higher.

But all the anecdotal evidence suggests much greater enthusiasm among the Republican base.  Romney rallies are huge, while Obama’s tend to be disappointing.  Surges in early voting among Republicans have been detected in the battleground states.  And while it would not, by definition, affect polling in October, people who remain “undecided” late into the race tend to break for the challenger – if they liked the incumbent, they wouldn’t be calling themselves “undecided” just a few weeks before the election.

The question independent voters need to ask themselves, particularly if they’re still undecided, is this: What, exactly, do you imagine will remain of your “independence” if Barack Obama gets another four years to increase the size and reach of government?  What do you think you’ll still be “independent” from?  And how valuable do you believe your electoral independence will be, if the growth of Food Stamp Nation continues to tip the scales toward voting blocs purchased with dependency programs?

That little game will end very soon, one way or the other, and if Obama wins the 2012 election, it will end in tears.  But in the meantime, if this incumbent can’t be unseated by independent voters angered by federal over-reach and incompetence, maybe the conventional wisdom is correct, and the value of the independent vote has been greatly diminished.  If not, then all of these polls are overselling the top-line horse-race number, while under-emphasizing the importance of an independent vote that has swung decisively to Mitt Romney.