Just nine months after giving George W. Bush the crucial swing votes he needed to best John Kerry, political independents are bolting out of the Republican Big Tent. Angered by GOP meddling in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case, reeling from record gasoline prices, and depressed by the escalating cycle of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, unaligned voters are suddenly lining up with Democrats to give Bush the lowest ratings of his Presidency. The disenchantment extends beyond the White House to the GOP Congress: Only 31% of independents say Congress is in touch with their concerns, according to a June 14-15 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Amid such dismal data, the only good news for Republicans is that the chronically disorganized Democrats have not convinced swing voters that they are any better -- at least not yet.
But that's cold comfort to the GOP. A June 24-26 Gallup Poll shows independents turning thumbs down to much of the President's second-term agenda, including his stay-the-course stance on Iraq, partial privatization of Social Security, and a pro-drilling energy policy. Equally worrisome: Just 15% of indies approve of Bush's handling of the economy, a June 19-22 American Research Group Poll found -- down from 44% last November.
To gauge the depth of independent anger, talk to Alan Rego Jr., an assistant supermarket manager in Cleveland. Rego, 23, twice voted for George W. Bush. The unaligned voter viewed Bush as a champion of small business and a stalwart in the war on terror. But he now sees a President bogged down in a Mideast quagmire and a Congress obsessed with a Religious Right agenda he does not share. "Congress is involved in too many social issues that it shouldn't be, like Terri Schiavo," he says. "It doesn't want to tackle the issues that it should be fixing, like tax reform, unemployment, and job creation."
For Republicans, an exodus of voters like Rego could have profound repercussions. Because 67% of independents think Bush will appoint a Supreme Court justice whose religious beliefs will inappropriately influence judicial rulings, according to Gallup, Dems may be emboldened to dig in for a long showdown (page 38).
Nearly 30% of the electorate describes itself as independent, though about half of those voters remain registered with a party. So while Republicans have signed up more than 4 million unregistered Christian conservatives in two years, a sizable decline in independent support in the 2006 midterm elections could leave the GOP a net loser outside the South. Particularly at risk are Republicans in states with independent streaks, such as California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.
The swing-voter stampede started after the extraordinary intervention by Bush and the GOP Congress in the Schiavo case. Now socially moderate independents -- who strongly favor expanded stem cell research and oppose overturning Roe v. Wade -- fear that the majority party is in thrall to the Religious Right. "These people lean more Republican because of fiscal issues, but they're much more liberal on social issues," says independent pollster Dick Bennett of American Research Group. "After Schiavo, they said, 'Wait a minute. We didn't buy in for that."'
Add to the toxic political mix sticker-shock at the gas pump and growing worries about post-Saddam Iraq. In an about-face, formerly hawkish indies now side with Democratic war critics. According to Gallup, just 31% of swing voters say Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, and 60% call the U.S. invasion a mistake. Alan Rego recently attended services for a friend's brother killed in Iraq. "The kid was my age," he recalls. "I voted for Bush because he seemed to have a plan to deal with terrorism, but Iraq is becoming another Vietnam."
The indie revolt worries some GOP veterans, but the White House seems unconcerned. Some insiders say Bush ?ber-strategist Karl Rove believes Republicans can afford to lose socially liberal swing voters if they succeed in wooing indie and Democratic "values voters" and increasing turnout on the Christian Right. "They obviously have a strategy to change the electorate, and they're willing to give up independents and moderates," says Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.
But can Democrats capitalize? Even Greenberg's polls show Dems struggling to convince voters that they can keep the nation safe, foster economic growth, and reform pay-to-play politics. He says circumstances are ripe for a strong third-party candidacy in 2008 -- if the right maverick emerges.
During the Bush years, the GOP has kept a majority of indies in its corner by portraying Dems as an unacceptable alternative. That tactic may work again -- if Democrats fail to attract the political center and the third-way option fizzles. But with so many swing voters ready to declare independence from Republican-ruled Washington, Bush and his allies on the Hill can't be so sure anymore.