Independents’ Day

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The horse race numbers in today’s Washington Post-ABC News poll are far less interesting, it seems to me, than what they say about the real 2008 battleground. The poll suggests that the election will be fought over independent voters–which is a decided contrast from 2004, when Karl Rove had all but declared the swing voter an extinct species, and both sides were battling to bring out their bases.

There are a couple of reasons that this is likely to be true. First, both parties have chosen candidates who defy easy partisan labeling, and who have proven appeal across party lines. Second, the electorate itself slipped its partisan moorings in the 2006 midterms, and has not gone back.

However, independent voters can be a volatile group, and may be hard to pin down, right up until election day. The Obama campaign learned that the hard way in New Hampshire. In an interview a few weeks back, campaign manager David Plouffe told me that the campaign believes the real reason Obama lost in that state was that double-digit lead he was showing in the polls on primary day. Independents saw those numbers, which came on top of Obama’s big win in Iowa, Plouffe says, and decided the Democratic race was over. So they moved en masse to vote in the Republican primary, where they became the crucial ingredient in McCain’s victory.

In November, of course, the dynamics are going to be entirely different. But that does suggest that independents are likely to make up their minds much later, and be far more influenced by events and dynamics they see in the days leading up to the election. Which means we are in for a lot of ups and downs in this race.

UPDATE: Here are my notes from that Plouffe interview, which provide a bit more detail of the post-game analysis of that surprising Clinton victory in New Hampshire:

In retrospect, he argued, the Obama campaign would have been “better served” without the huge bounce they got in the New Hampshire polls after Iowa. While four percentage points or thereabouts would have been helpful, “the big poll leads we had were very harmful,” Plouffe said. “There’s no doubt we shed independents to McCain, because they thought our contest was over. … We were very unhappy about those polls.” He added that Clinton’s big moment on Monday before the primaries–when she teared up and showed a more human side–also helped her a lot. But by the Obama campaign’s analysis, the voters who came into the Clinton fold in that last day were not entirely new converts to her campaign. Instead, they were voters who had been early supporters, but whose allegiances had been shaken.