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Will Marshall

Will Marshall

Posted: November 1, 2010 08:29 PM

Political handicappers are so intent on trying to quantify Democratic losses in the midterm elections that they are missing the bigger picture: America's radical center seems to be in a permanent state of revolt.

Democrats are going to get thrashed tomorrow, just as Republicans incurred huge losses in 2006 and 2008. The 2010 midterm will likely be the third successive election in which voters -- or, more precisely, independent voters -- rejected the ruling party. Grasping the significance of this meta-trend is more important that toting up the partisan body count.

Volatility across the broad center of the U.S. electorate has made this the age of the fleeting governing majority. Bill Clinton and the Democrats had one briefly from 1992-1994. Then George W. Bush and the Republicans held undivided power for six years before losing it in 2006.

"That's never happened before in back-to-back administrations," notes pollster Scott Rasmussen. The likely return to divided government signals, as Sarah Palin might put it, public "refudiation" of both political parties.

It's no accident that this trend coincides with the "great sorting out," the tendency of both parties to gravitate toward their respective ideological poles. This has left a large, discontented body of voters that increasingly feels disenfranchised by the two-party system. More Americans -- 37 percent -- now identify as independents than as Democrats or Republicans.

Of course, independents are a diverse lot. The Pew Research Center, for example, breaks them down into categories ("shadow Republicans" and "doubting Democrats") that suggest that a significant portion of them have residual partisan leanings. They've also grown more conservative since 2006, perhaps owing to GOP defections, and more skeptical of government's ability to solve big problems.

Compared to core conservatives and liberals, however, independents are generally pragmatic and moderate in outlook, and almost by definition are alienated from the hyper-partisan, zero-sum game of politics as played in Washington. Above all, says Andy Kohut of the Pew Center, they put performance before ideology. They will vote against incumbents not out of a basic philosophical affinity with the Republicans, but because they believe Democratic policies have failed to spur jobs and economic growth.

In 2006, independents gave Democrats a 17-point margin, and control of Congress. Obama carried independents by 8 points in 2008, enough to give him the biggest majority won by a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson. Their defection from the progressive coalition over the past two years is the main reason Democrats are facing a beat-down tomorrow.

The silver lining for progressives in the midterm is that these swing voters could swing back their way over the next two years. According to a recent National Journal poll, independents still harbor reasonably warm feelings about President Obama. The key to winning them back is not to be more liberal or more moderate, it's to govern effectively from the pragmatic center. That means building bipartisan support for tackling the nation's most urgent problems: stalled job growth, eroding competitiveness, a massive overhang of debt, not to mention a careful winding down our overseas military engagements.

But if Obama and House Republicans can't find a way to make forward progress on these fronts, the radical center will only become more disenchanted with the two-party duopoly. In that case, watch for a serious push to weld non-aligned and moderate voters into a "third force" in U.S. politics.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.