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September 10th, 2008
04:01 PM ET

How Obama can regain his edge with Independents

John P. Avlon
Author, Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics

Barack Obama has a new problem with Independent voters. Yesterday's Gallup Poll showed John McCain opening a new 15-point lead with that key demographic.

Here's how Obama can start to regain his edge with Independents:

Imagine an ad playing The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again". The theme dovetails with the music: a vote for McCain is a vote to extend the Bush administration.

Now, direct attempts to connect Bush to McCain won't stick because they're not credible. Bush and McCain are very different people, with entirely different political perspectives and life experiences. (And if you ask me, the country would be a lot better off if John McCain had won the nomination in 2000).

But the larger parliamentary point still stands: a McCain administration could not be staffed entirely with maverick independents. The same Republican resumes would be circulating. So the Obama camp can make a credible argument that the McCain administration will draw from the same Bush talent pool – and administration that is intellectually exhausted and instinctively trends toward the kind of right-wing partisan hackery embodied by Monica Goodling.

The strongest argument Obama has for Independents is to run against the Bush administration record over the last eight years – which has led to a 29% approval rating and 81% of Americans believing that the country is moving in the wrong direction.

Independents tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The Bush administration has been fiscally liberal and socially conservative.

So to attract independents, Obama needs to reinforce his fiscal conservative credentials – not just labor lunch-pail 'I feel your pain' exhortations, but responsible plans that ease middle class squeeze and enact generational responsibility. These are areas where the Bush administration has been MIA – especially with the deficit rising to new heights this year.

Obama has a good policy plan to sell – the most far-reaching middle class tax cut ever proposed by a Democratic candidate. The independent Tax Policy Center estimates that Obama's tax plan would cut taxes up to three times more than McCain for families making less than $66 thousand and cut taxes more than McCain even for families making under $112 thousand. That's a great story to tell – but its getting lost in the 'tax and spend liberal' label.

The other area where Obama can go on offense to win back independents is with national security. This is traditionally an area where independents don't trust Democrats – and Obama's life story doesn't compare with McCain's on military experience. But at the Denver convention, the Obama campaign began to correct this perception deficit with a parade of generals who supported their candidate – many of whom served under Reagan and Bush. These are the faces who can say with authority that Obama is not a national security risk, and instead that continuation of the Bush administration foreign policy is a more significant risk to our international stature.

Obama must go on offense to win back independents and win the election. But it's not mission impossible.

Obama's rise was built in large part on enthusiasm from independents as a result of his steady post-partisan rhetoric. His introduction to the American people in the 2004 convention was premised almost entirely on this point: "There are no red states, there are no blue states, there are only the United States of America."

By running as a post-racial and post-partisan candidate he tapped into a new generation's view of the world, one which was inpatient with the kind of ideological partisan hackery which had distracted the nation and distorted our government over the last eight years.

Indeed, Obama's appeal to independents was one of the least appreciated elements in his defeat of Hillary Clinton during the democratic primaries. Independent voters favored Obama by a 2 to 1 margin over Hillary – 49% to 24% – according to a NBC/WSJ poll taken in March.

Obama's independent edge had a direct impact in key 2008 swing states like Virginia, where independents made up 22% of the February 12th open primary. Obama won their support by a 2 to 1 margin, on his way to a 64-35 blowout victory.

And it's not a coincidence that some of Obama's biggest wins came from states with open primaries – where independents can vote – such as South Carolina, Wisconsin, Idaho, Mississippi, Minnesota and Vermont.

So Obama has a foundational connection with Independent voters that he can draw on – but he needs to reignite their fire with real evidence that he is not just a typical liberal democrat beneath the post-partisan rhetoric. And he must make the case that the out-of-step social conservatives who have staffed the Bush administration will be rewarded by a GOP victory. Only substance, not style, will help Obama regain his edge with independents with less than 2 months left.


Filed under: Barack Obama • John P. Avlon • Raw Politics
soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. Angela

    Our community newspaper does not put Senator Obama on the front page. They only put McCain/Palin news on the front page. The county and city is mainly Republican. This is not fair and balanced, considering that Senator Obama and a colleague are the ones responsible for the better security at the massive chemical plant right here in our back yard. Yes, that is right...we saw results and we didn't get informed that Senator Obama was the reason for the results. He is results driven. He does not just talk about getting things done. He also has realistic goals. Unlike, say, his opponent who SAYS he can get Bin Laden! Or, what about the hole that still lies in NYC where the trade center was 7 years ago. What ever happened to President Bush's plan to rebuild that area and show the world that we can be strong despite that major setback? It is still just an empty shell. No results from Republicans...just talk! Think about it Independents! I am an Independent, and I like results! Hope you consider this!

    September 11, 2008 at 7:55 pm |
  2. Angela

    I think that Senator Obama could impact more independents if he visited smaller cities in battleground states, like mine. I am from Midland Michigan. We have one of the largest chemical plants in the country. If people knew what Senator Obama has done for homeland security, right here in our back yard, they might be more supportive. Senator Obama and a colleague introduced legislation in 2006 that required chemical plants to beef up their security. I saw the results personally. Our chemical plant got beefed up security right before our eyes. This is results...not just talk. I don't doubt that Senator Obama would make a great president. I am an Independent, and I plan on voting for Obama. Thank you.

    September 11, 2008 at 7:47 pm |
  3. Sara

    This is really interesting. For months people exclaimed they didn't know who Obama was. Now here comes Sarah Palin and everyone and I mean everyone (media) thinks she a good friend. They speak as if they know her, in just two weeks they know her. America is taking the bait and we are going to soon become a third world country because we can't get over issues (like racism). It's got to be racism, who in their right minds would be fooled by this hypocrisy? And David Gergen (spelling?) must sorely disapprove of Barack Obama because he never has one good thing to say, but Sarah oh Sarah, he's salivating on TV. Very biased David, very biased. The media won't report the issues and I guess at this point no one cares. I don't want to hear anymore of this talk about love for country, it's more like love for scandal. This is disgraceful, Amereica does not deserve Sen. Obama.

    September 11, 2008 at 12:09 am |
  4. KT

    Palin is a cheer leader. Her job is to cheer on Mccain and that is what she is doing. She is a cheer leader that is using her gift of gab.

    Her speech sounds like a pep ralley without addressing any serious issues. People cheer without listening and they shout and cheer without hearing what she is saying. Her voice excite them and she works the crowd.

    The democrats need a cheer leader because they are sad right now. Do they have anything to say that have emotion and direction. The race is not over!

    September 10, 2008 at 11:54 pm |
  5. Marcia B.

    Unless Palin is beside him, very few want to show up to hear McCain in person. This has to be somewhat galling to him, and Mrs. McCain, but I'm sure they'll be happy to get into the WH any way they can.

    The drama is being fueled by the television networks. I fear in the end, it's all about ratings. Lately it's like watching Entertainment Tonight.

    September 10, 2008 at 11:45 pm |
  6. Kurtis

    Gail AL:

    with all that hate coming out of your own mouth you totally forgot to mention the lobbyist (7) that McCain has on his Campaign staff.

    Now if they work for him how do you suppose that McCain plans to pay for them.

    Oh and what kind of hate has Obama demonstrated. Lets not forget that McCain voted against MLK Day in his state so on January 15th you think about how we honor the birthdays of slave owners and mass murderers but not that of a true reformer.

    September 10, 2008 at 11:38 pm |
  7. Kurtis

    He simply has to talk issues and let Biden handle his light work.
    To me Obama is spending too much time on her. Consiquentely the media is spending too much time on her. Its a viscous cycle. We the people and the press need to brake it or regardless of who gets elected we open ourselves up for 8 more years of Bush.

    Kurtis

    San Diego

    September 10, 2008 at 11:31 pm |
  8. Joann

    When was the last time you voted for someone you didn't know anything about? Don't we owe our country more than that?

    Obama 08!

    September 10, 2008 at 11:29 pm |
  9. Laura

    This article has a lot of good points on how to capture the independent vote, and the states "in play". Given that McCain is attempting to take us back to the 2004 election – in which the presidency is determined by personality and anything but issues – I think Obama/Biden have to turn this on them with a strategy not just presentation of facts and issues. There are lots of ways to strategize, manipulate and exploit situations without getting into a war of words. Figure out the personalities and attitudes of the various voting blocks and put Obama and Biden in the places that play to their strengths and bring the excitement back to the campaign.

    As a strategy, Palin is a perfect pick and being used in that way. Biden was also a good strategy pick, but it seems there is no strategy for Biden beyond the pick. I was raised in a very small town in middle America and my family still lives in those small towns. I know exactly how much sexism exists in some parts of the country – not every single person is sexist, but their are places where the dominant attitude is sexist. And neither Obama or McCain can get their message across in that part of the country, McCain figured that out and that's the Palin strategy. Biden will play huge with small town rural voters. There is this initial interest in McCain because of the Palin pick...but I know that in the coming weeks those voters will seriously question Palin as VP because they really don't want a woman in charge. 1 week ago I was speaking with a career woman and her exact words were that she feels the issues of this country are too important to put in the hands of a woman – outrageous, yes and yet reality.

    I really believe the strategy of putting Biden in the small, rural communities to carry forward the message would work. During the primaries many of the rural midwest states went for Obama and when I spoke with my family they all said it's because they don't want a woman. The message in rural America needs to be jobs. Small town America is losing it's population due to lack of career options which is directly tied to a loss of their way of life and culture. Biden presenting the campaign message and hammering the fact that McCain/Palin will be devastating for rural America and ask them if anything happens to McCain do they really want Palin in charge of the country. I say beat McCain/Palin and the RNC machine at their own game – Palin was picked for the small town vote, but Obama/Biden should exploit the question the voters are asking themselves...do they want /trust Sarah Palin to make important decisions for this country and their community?

    September 10, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  10. Patrick

    Gallop polls Obama has 96% of the Black-American Vote, thats a fact! Dont play the race card! Mr. Stevie

    September 10, 2008 at 11:26 pm |
  11. Patrick

    Goodnight Obama, Hillary in 2012.

    September 10, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  12. Mesha

    Barack should focus his time on the top of the ticket. Palin is a joke and really not worth his time. Let Biden and commercials address Palin, however he needs to focus on the issues of the Independent voters. He also needs to rally a group of advocates who can help him move the needle among this group of voters. Obama needs to get back to the issues and his agenda and America needs to see past the drama and speeches of Palin. Get back to the issues...leave the drama to Brittany.

    September 10, 2008 at 11:14 pm |
  13. Jane

    I am a republican voting for Sentors Obama/Biden, so are some of my other republican friends. Whh? We are sick of the Bush years of corruption, no progress, non ending war, sick economy etc..... Also, we are completely disgusted by the Karl Rove political manuevers that McCain has taken, win at all cost, simply put that is not putting his country first. Lastly, his VP pick is a joke, not qualified for the job at all, that the republican leadership will not speak up is sad. Personally, I question his mental faculties, at 72 how can anyone take such a risk with this great nation! What about the lobbists? We can go on forever. Discuss the issues and don't let them sidetrack you Senators Obama/Biden. More people will come on board from the other side when it actually dawns on them exactly what is at risk!

    September 10, 2008 at 11:06 pm |
  14. Patty B

    I'll tell you the simplest way for Obama to win voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, W. Virginia and Michigan....Take off the Suit & Tie. Put on a Polo or Golf Shirt & a pair of khakis,,,loafers and GO GET 'EM......We are NOT suits & tie'ers here in small town America.....

    September 10, 2008 at 11:02 pm |
  15. Susan

    Republicans wins the election because they know how to distract voters from talking about real issues. Enter Sarah Palin....she's their distraction and it's working for them very well. Let's get real folks, majority of voters that don't follow politics everyday vote on personality and not issues because it can get very confusing on who is really telling the truth. That's why personality wins over issues.

    September 10, 2008 at 11:00 pm |
  16. Patricia Haga

    I have tried to understand where some people are coming from supporting the McCain/Palin ticket. I wish they would research the (Thomas -Library of Congress) website for themselves. If they would just do the homework and listen to the speeches of the candidates, they would know who is lying without any media input, and it's not Obama. McCain has stolen the democratic platform, which he has never supported, and his record shows it. The McCain campaign has shown no class or respect. If Obama doesn't address the McCain attacks, he is seen as week, and if he does attack back, he's gets dragged through the mud. It seems no matter how he handles the attacks – it's wrong. The focus needs to go back to the issues where Obama's strengths are. Don't stoop to the Republicans level.

    September 10, 2008 at 10:54 pm |
  17. Chris

    When did Barack give McCain permission to plagerize his mantra and theme of CHANGE? Barack, get back on message. Take back the message of CHANGE. It's your message, it's your mantra. Take it back. We are all working so hard to elect you, please give the American people what we need, lower taxes, health care, and all the other themes which won you the nomination. You beat the Clinton machine,you can beat the McCain Rove machine. Let Palin swim alone. Media, PLEASE cover the Presidential Candidates and stop the media panting over this woman. She is only around to act as McCain's crutch. She's only the VP candidate. Put her there, and leave her there. PLEASE!!!

    September 10, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  18. suzette

    Obama and Joe Biden should focus on providing Americans with plans on how we can fix Bushes corruption. In my opinion, Bush is the MOST inexperienced ,of them all, because OUR Country fell into a real disaster, under HIS leadership and continuous lies! We are in debt with ourselves and other countries. And our Military is disapearring more and more each day. McCain and Palin can only AVOID "The Reality of America's Crisis" for so long. Wheter they like it not, they will HAVE to answer to "Non-scripted" questions soon..

    September 10, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  19. carmen

    just stay classy as he has done..and a lot of praying because the republicans are out for blood....evil doesnt prevail..

    September 10, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  20. valerie

    Barack Obama, I suggest that he continue in the way his leading the nation asPresident. Talk more about the what he can do for the people and his policy that can turn this nation around just stick with

    September 10, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  21. Hoku

    First, Obama needs to continue to pound away at the main issues of the economy, education, jobs, war in Iraq, and IMMIGRATION. Obama needs to deal with this issue of immigration at some point especially with the minority votes. Second, move away from Palin and focus on McCain. Let the media and Republicans continue to glorify Palin. At some point, it will wear off and hopefully Biden will prove to be the one that can step in and deal with America and world issues if he would be commander-in-chief.

    September 10, 2008 at 10:18 pm |
  22. Grethel Taylor

    Lipstick on a pig as a canidate would look much better to me as a canidate for president than a Mccain/palin ticket.Deliver us lord from a man who is ready for a nsg home and a woman who does not have enought common sense to teach no sex without protection to her young daughter .I know she believes in no sex education but who pays when HER children end up with one of many sexually transmitted diseases.Guess then she makes up more lies and tries to convince people they never had sex lol.NO SHE IS NOT THE ONE FOR VP FOR MANY MORE YRS IF EVER.One vote here for Oboma after this lady spread her big story.

    September 10, 2008 at 10:06 pm |
  23. Rob

    I feel it is to late for Obama. Obama made a big mistake by showing bad judgement in not picking Clinton. He showed bad judgement in his choice of words with the lipstick comment. The American people are sick and tired of sending all of our taxes to Washington so that the politicians can come up with ways to spend it. Big government is not the answer, the American people know better how to spend their hard earned money than the Democrats or Republicans. The people are speaking – they want to send Mrs. Smith (Palin) with Mr. McCain to Washington to reform the government.

    September 10, 2008 at 10:06 pm |
  24. roberrt Labrode

    i think we need to get down to the real issues on macain and obama there going to run this country and yes macan picked sara becacuse he has no real answers and is using her as a distraction and shame on the republicans for sexism let sara take a helicptor ride and slaughter more wolves while obama and mccain fight it out. sara isn't worth the words

    September 10, 2008 at 9:58 pm |
  25. Leslie, Severance, CO

    Actually I want to amend my article above. Anderson Cooper seems to be the most objective reporter that I've seen on CNN. So kudos to you Anderson! We undecided voters appreciate your efforts!

    September 10, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
  26. Annie Kate

    I think you suggested a good strategy for Obama to gain back what he has lost. He can do all this but if the press continues to cover gaffes instead of policy suggestions and the candidates view on the issues it won't do much good because most of us won't hear anything about it.

    This election has become so dysfunctional its ridiculous .

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 10, 2008 at 9:39 pm |
  27. julie, lee's summit, MO

    Please will someone have Biden get out there and start questioning how Plain can possible be ready to be VP ??? They put her out there and announce her as their candidate, write an amazing speech for her, and then hide her away for the next 2weeks???? Isn't this a campaign?
    When she was in Lee's Summit MO and probably all the other cities, she repeats her same lines/jokes from her speech, and then they will not let her take any questions. Is she their puppet? They shoulod be out there every minute talking about how Biden is prepared and has been taking questions and interviews. How can she be ready for the call in the middle of the night, when she can't even speak for herself?

    September 10, 2008 at 9:30 pm |
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