Washington Barack Obama’s presidency has ushered in an era of centrism, with the country experiencing such a boost in independent voters that they now make up the largest proportion of the electorate in 70 years.
This fickle group doesn’t have uniform opinions, so its dominance carries potential risks for emboldened Democrats and opportunities for out-of-power Republicans.
A new, expansive Pew Research Center survey that contained those details also found that the nation’s values haven’t fundamentally changed. The country hasn’t become more ideologically liberal or conservative despite sweeping Democratic victories at all levels of government last fall and shrinking GOP ranks.
Good and bad news
Broadly, the findings indicate that it’s politically dangerous for the new president and his fellow Democrats who control Congress to move too far to the left on domestic and foreign issues, lest they turn off middle-of-the-road voters whose support was critical in 2008 and will be important in upcoming elections.
The results also suggest that the public recently has rejected the GOP for poor performance, not because it disagrees with the party’s positions on key issues. That means beleaguered Republicans looking to rebound must convince voters they are still good stewards of those values while improving the GOP’s image and morale.
Overall, the report contains much that’s likely to hearten energized Democrats looking to build upon Obama’s popularity for lasting success and much that could further discourage Republicans seeking rebirth after back-to-back losses in national elections.
“There’s certainly a lot of bad news for Republicans and better news, if not good news, for Democrats,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan center that conducted the survey. He said both sides should take particular note of this finding: “Independents are very much the trump card these days, and their views are not all one way.”
Indeed, the survey found that 36 percent of people call themselves independent, an uptick from two years ago, while 35 percent claim the Democratic label and only 23 percent say they are Republicans. Among independents, 17 percent lean toward Democrats while 12 percent lean toward the GOP.
On issues, independents’ viewpoints don’t fit neatly into liberal or conservative frameworks.
This group hews more closely to Democrats than Republicans on social values, religion and national security. But it also is more conservative on several key issues including the economy, partly because of steady defections from the GOP, and more skeptical than two years ago of expanding government assistance, a typically Republican position.
More in line with Democratic thinking, most independents support expanded government intervention and regulation in the private sector, albeit reluctantly.
Because of its viewpoint diversity, analysts say the growing independent sector could slip from the Democrats’ grasp as Obama pushes an ambitious agenda that’s different from his predecessor’s.
“We’ve moved from a less activist government to a more activist government, and the two-mindedness in the reaction of independents, I think, to some extent is response to that,” Kohut said.
That said, Kohut added: “Obama’s doing very well with independents. But they have some reservations ... about growing government and about growing debt.” He called those issues “red flags” for the party.
For its part, the GOP is in its weakest position in two decades of Pew polling; it’s smaller, older and heavily white, though not more conservative even as the number of people who identify themselves as Republicans has declined precipitously. Also, Republicans are increasingly critical of their party, with only a quarter saying the GOP is doing an excellent or good job of standing up for its longtime core principles of lower taxes, smaller government and conservative social values.
In another GOP trouble spot, the economy has overtaken social values among voters’ most pressing concerns. The recession has essentially robbed Republicans of a potent political weapon. The survey also found that the percentage of Americans holding conservative views on family, homosexuality and gender roles has steadily declined over the past decade because younger people are less conservative than older people.
Conversely, Democrats are upbeat and increasingly diverse, fueled in part by growth among Hispanics and youth. Two-thirds say their party is doing an excellent or good job of promoting and defending its traditional positions of protecting minority interests, helping the poor and advocating for working people.
Democrats also have a more positive view of the government than they have had in the two decades the study has been conducted. And black voters, a key part of the Democrats’ base, view the country more positively after the election of the country’s first African-American president.
The findings are contained in the latest version of a survey conducted every two years since 1987 to gauge the country’s political and social values. This year’s update included 77 questions posed to 3,013 people interviewed by cell phone or landline over two weeks this spring. For all adults, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Pew used surveys conducted by Gallup to identify long-term trends in party identification since 1939.