09/09/2008 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

With An Eye To The Middle: Independents

The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain's running mate came to many as a surprise, and was deemed [by folks on the right and the left, to be fair] a pitch to conservatives. The convention, it seemed, would be a pep rally for "the base"; many proclaimed (and lamented) that the McCain team had given up on the middle, on the independent voters, and instead had decided to pursue a strategy of turning out the base.

I'll set the relative strengths and weaknesses of Gov. Palin aside for the purposes of this piece - there are plenty of places to debate that topic, and my initial gut reaction to the pick was posted here at The Next Right, if you're interested.

What I am more interested in is where the independent voter truly stands, post-conventions. If the selection of Palin and the tone of the Republican convention were purely polarizing - off-putting to most Independents and grown from a base-centered strategy - one would expect independents to break away from the GOP and the McCain-Palin ticket in these polls just after the convention.

Plenty of polls have shown a tightening of the race since the conventions in the aggregate, or have even put McCain ahead. CBS has McCain up, ABC has the race a dead heat. Is it because the GOP is more energized? Is it because the base "came home"? Or is it because of independents? Discussion of blue collar voters, married women with children voters and the like is all important, and it's those voters who make up important swing sub-groups. But for an easy breakout with a large enough cell size to matter, its the independents I want to track. I believe that where the independents go, so will go the White House.

So let's take a look at the after effects of the conventions:

CBS's poll asked independents if watching Obama's speech made them more or less likely to vote for Obama. Half of those who watched (29% overall) said it made them more likely to vote for Obama. The other half said it made no change (17% overall) or that it made them less likely to vote Obama (12%). They then asked if McCain's speech made them more or less likely to vote for McCain. More independents watched McCain's speech - 67% of independents surveyed, compared to 58% for Obama's...and among those who watched, the impact was far more positive. 43% of independent voters watched McCain's speech AND said it made them more likely to vote for him. That's nearly 2 out of every 3 independents who watched the speech.

This bodes well for Team McCain.

(Also? 61% of independents said they thought McCain/Palin would bring real change to Washington, compared to 33% who disagreed...a bigger margin for change than Obama/Biden, where 57% of independents said they'd bring change and 37% disagreed).

Let's take a look at another poll. The most recent Diageo/Hotline poll, conducted September 5-7, 2008 of 924 RVs (data here) splits up party ID including "independent leaners" into their respective partisan breakouts. Independents make up 20% of the sample, with another 8% of "independent/lean Republicans" and 7% "independent/lean Democrats". While I'd love to see how things change in the "independent" breakout if the leans were also included, taking a look at how the 20% non-leaning independents broke should shed some interesting light on this key group of voters. Indeed, independents behaved a lot like Democrats at the ballot box in 2006 - they broke for the Dem house candidates 57-39 according to the exit polls. Winning back this key group is an essential challenge for the McCain team.

Taking a look at each candidates' fav/unfavs, McCain holds an oh-so-small advantage over Obama. While 61% view McCain favorably, 57% view Obama favorably (each have 31% unfavorables). Palin also holds a small lead over Biden, with her 49-15 fav/unfav to Biden's 45-26. (Palin's fav/unfav will of course be more interesting and relevant once more people have been able to form an opinion about her, but I felt it was worth mentioning here).

So now let's turn to policy. It's no secret that recently, on nearly every policy question with the exception of, say, national security, Democrats have held a serious advantage over Republicans - usually by wide margins, particularly on issues such as health care. The Diageo/Hotline poll asked the respondents which candidate they preferred on the issues. The results, in my opinion, were stunning.

Let's take a look at two issues where respondents predictably choose one party over another - health care for the Democrats, national security for the Republicans. On the question of national security, Independents prefer McCain over Obama 62-24 - little surprise there. But on health care, which should be an Obama home run, Obama's lead over McCain is 36-35. That's right - one point.

But the good news for fans of McCain doesn't stop there. Let's take a look at the two intertwined issues that are chosen by Independent voters as their top voting issue topic: economy and gas prices. As Susan Page's piece in USA Today pointed out, Obama has previously led McCain on the economy...but that post convention, things have changed. In the Diageo/Hotline poll? Among Independents, McCain leads Obama on the economy 37-33, and leads on energy 40-32.

As I said in the Next Right piece, I think this is going to be an election about energy/economy and an election about reform. It's not a revolutionary statement or a bold assertion, the environment just seems primed for those two items to drive the race. So here's why these numbers among independents are important.

First, McCain has made important steps in jettisoning the negative brand of the Republican party. As Brian Schaffner's excellent post on the topic of Obama's advantage on the economy notes, while generic Republicans have performed worse against generic Democrats on these issue handling questions, the gap is now smaller between Obama and McCain, and Obama's lead on the economy has correlated with his lead on the ballot test.

Second, the McCain/Palin "reform" message is working. The fact that more independents believe McCain/Palin can bring reform to Washington than Obama/Biden is astounding to me. Not because I don't believe it's true (again, trying to set aside my partisanship), but because it runs so contrary to what one would normally expect given the terrible job approval ratings of Bush and the abysmal right track/wrong track.

Maybe what we're seeing is the after effect of a "bump", but the fact that independents have come all the way from kicking Republicans out of Congress by enormous margins in 2006 to looking at McCain the way these polls indicate is something worthy of an incredible deal of study. If independents truly are the key to this election, the McCain campaign has more than a little to smile about, and a much more favorable environment heading into the final two months than many could have predicted.