Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by assembling a broad coalition of Democrats and independents, but since the summer, independents have been deserting Obama's cause, and not only in Massachusetts.
That's what has White House strategists and Democrats in Congress most worried about this fall's elections: Independents, the country's most fickle voters, are in the driver's seat. They're unhappy about the economy, worried about the potential costs of the Democrats' healthcare bills and disappointed that Obama's promises of bipartisanship didn't come true.
And they're quick to fire a party that isn't delivering the goods -- as they did in Massachusetts' special Senate election last week.
"They are the least loyal voters to a president of any party," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said last week. "That's why they're called independents. They took George W. Bush down too."
Since 2006, there has been a massive "dealignment" from party allegiance, with more voters calling themselves independents today than at any time since the invention of modern polling. In Massachusetts, more than 50% of voters actually register as independents -- in part because that allows them to vote in either party's primary. And the trend isn't confined to New England; nationwide, the number of voters who call themselves independent has risen to 37% in the Gallup Poll, against 33% who identify themselves as Democrats and 27% as Republicans.
In recent months, independents' sentiment has started to swing away from the Democrats. Over the course of 2009, the share of independents who said they "leaned Republican" grew from 31% to 40%; those who leaned Democratic dropped from 47% to 38%.
Many of those independents voted for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008, but they didn't turn into liberals along the way. The independents' underlying ideology has actually been fairly stable, even if their voting pattern hasn't.
"They're conflicted centrists," said Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which did a major study of independent voters last year. "They are closer to the Democrats on social issues, but they're closer to the Republicans in being skeptical about big government."
That last factor is part of what's hurting Obama and the Democrats now. Independents are "leery of government control of healthcare," Kohut said, "even though they say they favor healthcare reform."
For months, Republicans have charged that Obama's healthcare proposals would raise costs to middle-class taxpayers without giving them much in return, and polls show that the charge has stuck. Most voters who identify themselves as Democrats continue to support the healthcare bills, but most independents now say they do not.
Another thing that unifies independents is their anger. They were angry about the federal government's bailouts of Wall Street banks -- a big-government policy Obama endorsed, even though it was launched by his predecessor.
Obama's first reaction to the Massachusetts election was to unleash his inner populist, proposing tougher measures to regulate banks and telling voters that he's every bit as angry about the economy as they are.
But that could be a tough sell. Obama campaigned on hope, not resentment. He's famous for being cool -- the opposite of angry. Can the unflappable Obama turn himself into a credible rabble-rouser by pounding the podium in his State of the Union address on Wednesday? Not likely.
In any case, most independents -- contrary to claims from the "tea party" camp -- are looking for bipartisanship and centrism, not bloody-shirt populism. Bruce Reed, a former aide to President Clinton who now heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says Obama needs to make a more dramatic move back to the middle -- much as Clinton did after losing Congress to the Republicans in 1994. Reed says his party's problem is straightforward: Liberal leaders in Congress overestimated their mandate and overreached.
"Among some Democrats, there was a hope that because the country had so many problems, people would welcome an all-out government effort," he said. "But Americans are as reluctant as they always have been to rely on government to solve problems."
In Massachusetts and elsewhere, he said, voters "are sending a message that they want Obama to be the president he campaigned as" -- a centrist, not a liberal. "They want him to succeed, and they want Congress to help."
Obama and his aides haven't decided how far in Reed's direction to go yet, especially on the unfinished business of healthcare. But they've already decided to go at least partway.
That's why you're already seeing Obama put renewed emphasis on bipartisanship and deficit reduction; independents love both. And it's a reason White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, an old ally of Reed's from their Clinton days, has begun exploring the prospects for a more centrist, stripped-down healthcare bill -- to the anguish of liberals who already feel they've given up too much.
Republicans crowed about the Massachusetts results, of course, but their strategists know that those fickle independents were voting against an unimpressive Democrat, not endorsing the GOP program. The public doesn't like the Democratic leadership in Congress, but it admires the current lineup of congressional Republicans even less.
"We have the ability to win the majority. It doesn't mean we are going to," Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the GOP's chief recruiter for House races, said carefully at a breakfast with reporters on Thursday. "There is an opportunity; it is what you do with it."
It may not look like it now,
but Obama and his Democrats
are lucky to have 10 months to
figure out the message of those
Massachusetts independents. Otherwise they might have waited until November to learn.