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May 05, 2014 11:47 AM Bogus Priorities of an Imaginary Constituency

By Ed Kilgore

If you want to perpetually misunderstand past, present and future election cycles, then please take to heart this analysis from the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas today:

At a low point in President Barack Obama‘s first term, a White House official conceded the president had lost a disturbing amount of ground with independent voters.
We have to get them back, the official said in an interview.
So began a deliberate effort on the president’s part to court the swing voters who helped him win the White House in 2008. He made deficit reduction a priority, while unnerving core Democrats with pledges to pare entitlement costs in pursuit of a budgetary “grand bargain.”
Mr. Obama and the Republicans never cut the deal, but the president stanched the defection of independent voters by the time the 2012 election rolled around. He won 45% of independents - not bad considering that a Gallup poll from a year and a half earlier showed his support among these voters at just 35%….
Today, with the midterm election campaigns approaching, independents are as disillusioned with the president as they’ve been in years. Their sour mood poses a particular challenge for Democrats in the midterms. Making the challenge all the more daunting, the policy initiatives showcased by Mr. Obama in recent months have all been aimed at motivating the party’s liberal base.
What’s different this time around is that Mr. Obama isn’t making any special overtures to independents. The president’s 2015 budget called for spending increases in education and job training, ditching a plan he embraced in the past that slowed the growth of Social Security costs through an adjustment in the inflation measure.

So the all-important independent vote is bleeding away because Obama’s not giving them the “entitlement reform” they desperately and universally want.

I do not know if Mr. Nicholas is simply unaquainted with the strong consensus among political scientists that dismisses such breezy talk of “independent voters” as a centrist nonpartisan bloc, or is willfully ignoring it. But what’s even worse is the assumption that these presumed “swing voters” (most of whom, again, are no such thing) are standing outside the Democratic tent wailing for Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts in order to reduce (rapidly declining) federal budget deficits.

Since we’ll spend a lot of this week hearing conservative pundits praising the latest offering from Pew (which shows Republicans in very good shape for this November), let’s look at the last time that survey outfit asked “independents” what they thought about the abandoned “bipartisan” entitlement reform strategy for deficit reduction, in December of last year:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Dec. 3-8 among 2,001 adults, finds majorities say it is more important to maintain spending on Social Security and Medicare and programs to help the poor than to take steps to reduce the budget deficit. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say it is more important to maintain current Social Security and Medicare benefits than to reduce the deficit, while 59% prioritize keeping current levels of spending for programs that help the poor and needy over deficit reduction.

But surely independents dissent from that majority, right? Wrong: asked if they place a higher priority on “taking steps to reduce budget deficits” or “keeping Social Security [and] Medicare benefits at current levels,” self-identified independents favored the latter over the former by a 66-25 margin.

I realize this is familiar information for a lot of readers, but it bears repeating at least as often as the assertions being made by the likes of Nicholas.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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