Independent voters make up 40 percent of the electorate, yet they are largely ignored by Washington as the partisan gap between Democratic and Republican lawmakers grows ever wider. Journalist and former U.S. News blogger Linda Killian, in her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents, examines who these voters are and why they have been left out of the electoral process. Killian recently spoke with U.S. News about the role independent voters will play in the 2012 elections. Excerpts:
Why did you write this book?
I have been covering politics my entire adult life and I have been growing more and more concerned about the state of our politics, about the dysfunction, about the polarization, about the nastiness, about the inability to deal with our most important problems and issues, and about the pervasiveness of money. I became aware of the fact that 40 percent of all the voters are independents—most of them in the center of the political spectrum. I was feeling very strongly that they were not well represented by the system. They needed a champion, if you will, to talk about their concerns and introduce them.
If independent, centrist voters are such a big bloc, why is there such gridlock in Washington?
That's at the heart of the problem. If they were represented in our government, I am convinced things wouldn't be such a mess. One [reason] is that you don't have open primaries. In over half the states in the country, only Democrats or Republicans can vote in the primary. Independents won't be allowed to vote. So you have a system that is not truly democratic, that is not truly representative. So the candidates play to the extremes. Centrists find it very hard to get elected. Part of it is how [congressional] districts are drawn. It's handled by state legislators—in almost all the states—in backroom deals that don't involve the public. They draw districts that are safe Republican and Democratic seats. They don't have to play to the center, they only have to play to the base.
Why did President Obama fail to bring bipartisanship to Washington?
Part of it was the intransigence of Democratic leaders. Part of it was the Republicans. There was a brief moment when there were moderate Republicans who would have worked with the president and who were interested in doing that, but I think they were rebuffed to a certain extent. They were rebuffed by Democratic leaders and cowed by their own leadership, and that quickly faded and they quickly fell into line. The Republicans felt like they weren't going to help Obama on anything. From my perspective, Republicans may have been a little more intransigent, but both the Republican and the Democratic leadership in Congress are to blame for this. And Obama could have been a stronger leader.
What are the four types of independents you discuss in your book?
You've got the NPR Republicans who are the moderate Republicans that tend to be more affluent. These NPR Republicans are socially moderate, but they are more fiscally conservative. The America First Democrats, of my four groups, are probably the most socially conservative. They tend to be more religious, working class, middle class, policemen, factory workers, that kind of thing. There's the young voters who obviously voted for Obama in big numbers in 2008. But they have been hit hard by the economy and they are having trouble finding jobs, they've got student loans. Then, of course, you have the Starbucks moms and dads—the suburban voters, which are the biggest and most important demographic of this centrist swing-vote bloc. They are enormously important, they totally decide elections.
What can they all agree on?
I think they can actually agree on a lot. That's one of the central points of the book. As you go around the country and you talk to people, there are a lot of people who are in the center, and there are a lot of people who agree on a great deal, and they like some things that the Republican Party stands for, and they like other things that the Democratic Party stands for, and that's not being mushy.
What role will swing voters play in the 2012 election?
I think they are up for grabs. A lot of them did vote for Obama in 2008, and a lot of them that I interviewed a year or two later were rather disappointed with what they were getting. Obviously the economy is issue No. 1. It is all about the economy and jobs and how people feel about their own situation, and that is going to be absolutely the biggest issue in this campaign.
What do the media not understand about swing voters?
I think what the media misses is that there is this core group in the center that is in agreement on a great many things. And they want movement forward, they want solutions. I don't think the media is focusing at all on that group and their concerns.
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