By Rob Harris
Conservative political and policy advisor Alex Titus almost gets it right in his recent article: How Knute Buehler Wins Portland: Law and Order– He succeeds in identifying an issue that could motivate independent voters but It’s not clear he understands three essential things about self-identified independent voters. Therefore his advice on winning independent votes misses the mark.
First, even though over 40% of voters self-identify as “independent”, most of these voters are some mix of uninformed, strategic, or have a weak to strong bond to either the Democratic or Republican Party. These independents vote consistently Democratic or Republican. Statewide these consistent leaning independents split about 50/50 between the Democrats and Republicans.
Only a small percentage of independent voters are truly swing independent voters. I believe that number to vary between 5% and 8% of all Oregon voters. While no candidate should totally ignore the non-swing independent voters, particularly those who have weaker Democratic or Republican party preferences, in a statewide races the non-swing independent voters generally cancel each other out with about 17% voting Democratic and 17% voting Republican.
The key to winning “the independent vote” is therefore really about winning those 5% – 8% who are true independent swing voters.
Second, independent voters aren’t the same everywhere. As a group independent voters track the political makeup of their local communities. In Multnomah County independent voters are likely to be more liberal and In Jefferson County they are likely to be more conservative. In Washington County, independent voters are more moderate. This essential fact is important in Legislative and local races, but not as important in Statewide races.
Third, Independent voters are eclectic on policy and don’t feel bound by only two choices. Many political operatives, analysts and pundits mistake independent voter frustration towards one party and their policies as support for the other party and their policies.
Mr. Titus’ first mistake is related to the first and second essential fact about independents. Multnomah County independent voters lean heavily Democratic. Many are Bernie Sanders supporters. (See Independent nominee Marc Koller who is running against Rep. Earl Blumenauer from the left). Most are never going to vote for Mr. Buehler simply because he’s a Republican. Spending a lot of time, energy and money in Multnomah county communicating with all 35% of the independent voters who prefer Democrats or are true swing voters there may not have a high marginal rate of return.
Secondly, Mr. Titus doesn’t consider the third essential fact. He identifies an issue where independent swing voters may very well be unhappy with failed Democratic policies. But then he proposes conservative policies using conservative language as the way to win the support of liberal leaning independent swing voters.
Policies that propose to support “Law and order”, our “men and women in uniform” and are “tough on crime” will not convince a lot of independent swing voters much less urban and suburban liberal leaning independents. We hear dog whistles and jargon used by the tribal right and left all day long and what I hear Mr. Titus proposing is to treat mental health problems, economic based homelessness and addiction as mainly criminal problems to be solved by boosting police budgets and filling jails at the expense of other vital services. I hear him proposing that we separate a parent who has worked in the US for years but is not here legally from their US citizen spouse and children because Congress can’t get their act together and do the right thing. While these talking points may have motivated rust belt and rural independent swing voters to vote for Reagan and Trump it will not win over those 5%-8% of swing independents in Oregon in 2018. And for sure such policies won’t win over many Metro Tri County area swing independents.
Independent swing voters are moderate, informed and willing to be convinced with science, logic, and sound economic argument. They believe in shared sacrifice for a common good and caring for those in need and the powerless. That makes them like many Democrats and Republicans. But Treating them as secret partisans by assuming they will accept a Republican policy because of failed Democratic policies is a mistake.
Rob Harris is a partner at Harris Velázquez Gibbens and is a co-chair of the Independent Party of Oregon.