STIRRETT: Independent of Party, Not Purpose
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 20:10
It’s become almost trite for Americans to complain about the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. Every stump speech includes some standard line about the need to break the “partisan gridlock.”
“The Daily Show” had a great sketch this week in which John Oliver asked different individuals at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions about the tension between the two parties. All of the interviewees admitted that it’s a huge problem — but conveniently blamed the other party for it. Quite comically, this illustrates that the same politicians who lament the lack of cooperation are usually responsible for partisan squabbling.
I’m going to try to not play this blame game, and I'm instead going to look at some of the broader contributors to the problem. The root cause of gridlock is not individual parties, but the state of the American electoral system as a whole.
Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wrote a great article last week on how this presidential election will not be decided by swing voters. He cites evidence that only around one in 20 voters is actually undecided, and most of these voters can be described as uninterested — in essence, not prone to break for either candidate.
As a result, many American political strategists believe the key to winning elections is simply rallying the members of their political “base,” which means focusing on those towards the extremes of your party.
For instance, in 2004, Republicans pushed anti-marriage-equality initiatives onto the ballot in 11 different states to get the evangelical vote out. Karl Rove was the master of this method, calibrating the GOP’s strategy to boost turnout for the key groups that he needed on Election Day.
Today, it seems like Mitt Romney used base theory to inform his vice presidential pick of Paul Ryan. If he wanted swing voters, he would have picked someone like Tim Pawlenty or Susana Martinez, but he opted for a candidate who is one of the most partisan figures in American politics, firmly rooted in the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
The Obama campaign has also pandered largely to its base, highlighting benefits of the Obama presidency to the different minority groups that make up the Democratic coalition and presenting Romney as someone at war with the middle class.
If base theory has become more important, what is happening with political party identification in the United States?
While fewer Americans identify as undecided in most elections, there has been a massive surge in the number of Americans who identify as politically independent — the group now makes up 40 percent of the electorate.
So what explains this paradox? How is it that the number of Americans who are undecided is decreasing, but the number of independents is increasing?
To answer that question, one has to go back to the “Daily Show” sketch. Most Americans are sick of the partisanship that exists in Washington and therefore do not like to associate themselves with either of the political parties, even if they really have made up their minds about whom they will vote for. The challenge for political parties is to attract voters who identify as independent but who have also said in polls that they have already made their pick.
It’s not necessarily all about getting these voters to the polls; it’s — at a more fundamental level — about reigniting their enthusiasm. For Republicans, this means getting “independent” conservatives to proudly identify as Republicans and go out and convince their friends and family to do the same.
Eliminating this enthusiasm gap would give each party a huge new source of volunteers and donors in addition to a more engaged base of supporters that is more likely to actually show up to the polls.
The first step in alleviating the gridlock is for both parties to reconsider the base strategy and bring the millions of Americans who now identify as independent back into their respective political tents. This country faces several long-term problems, most notably the budget deficit, and the only way they can be successfully addressed is through genuine political cooperation.
Following this strategy will be good not only for American politics but also for the United States as a nation.
Scott Stirrett is a senior is the School of Foreign Service.