Images of the polished Bob McDonnell and the more portly Chris Christie will no doubt grace the front pages of today's newspapers. They are the Republicans who were elected governor in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, bucking recent Democratic trends in both states. But maybe the papers should make room for a photo of someone who hasn't been on the ballot in 13 years: one H. Ross Perot.
No political figure has better represented the angry, pox-on-both-your-houses independent better than Perot -- only Jesse Ventura, the Texas billionaire's onetime Reform Party rival, has even come close. When those voters joined forces with conservatives, it produced the Republican congressional takeover of 1994. Yesterday, they got the band back together and produced more GOP victories.
The numbers are telling. Exit polls showed Christie, a former U.S. attorney, trouncing Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine by 58 percent to 31 percent. In Virginia, independents opted for McDonnell over Democrat Creigh Deeds by an astonishing 65 percent to 34 percent. Both states have been trending Democratic for a decade, as swing voters turned a deaf ear to Republican appeals.
After being at parity with self-styled moderates throughout 2005-08, a recent Gallup poll found that self-described conservatives are once again a plurality of the country at 40 percent. The main reason for this is a 6-point increase in the number of independents, who under George W. Bush eschewed the conservative label, identifying as such.
Despite providing him with decisive support in the 2008 presidential election, independents are now inching toward Republican views of Barack Obama and his policies. In September, a CNN/Opinion Dynamic poll for the first time found a majority of independents disapproving of the president's job performance. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Byron York reported on a private poll that showed 57 percent of independents -- in agreement with 79 percent of Republicans -- dismissing the Obama stimulus plan as a failure.
Independents turned sharply against George W. Bush in 2005. They believed the war in Iraq had been a mistake and their post-9/11 confidence in Bush's leadership was undermined when the government seemed unprepared for Hurricane Katrina. That confidence dissipated entirely as the economy soured and the budget deficit soared. Republicans paid a steep price for these misgivings, as 57 percent of independents voted Democratic during the 2006 midterm elections.
But these voters were not embracing the Democratic Party as a whole or endorsing liberal policies across the board. They were simply firing the Republicans and sticking it to George W. Bush. They remained angry at the system, at the direction of the country, and at the state of the economy. Yesterday's election results flow directly from the Democrats' failure to understand these facts.
Unaffiliated voters still generally think Obama is a nice guy. New Jersey voters still gave him a 58 percent approval rating while throwing out their Democratic governor (at 48 percent, Virginians were a little less enthusiastic). But they are becoming increasingly concerned that he is trying to do -- and spend -- too much too fast. And they are starting to wonder if he is capable of delivering on all the promises contained in his lofty speeches. Sometimes this leads to contradictory results -- voters simultaneously faulting the president for not delivering a health care bill and for proposing one that is radical and expensive -- but either way it does not bode well for the president's party.
Republicans should not make a similar mistake by assuming the voters once again adore them. Independents will happily turn on them again if there is GOP misgovernment. And the results in New York's 23rd congressional district -- where Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman came up just short in his race against Democrat Bill Owens and the Republican ballot line occupied by Dede Scozzafava -- show that the independent/conservative synthesis will not come about automatically.
Yet before the conventional wisdom about NY-23 fully coagulates, it should be noted that the GOP candidates who won in Virginia and New Jersey were not Rockefeller Republicans out of central casting. While they did not engage in right-wing chest-pounding -- especially not Christie -- they all described themselves as pro-life. Deeds got little mileage out of informing voters that McDonnell attended and wrote a thesis at a Pat Roberston-founded college.
Only by offering a robust challenge to the bipartisan status quo and focusing on the voters' actual concerns can the alliance between conservatives and independents be maintained. Conservatives tend to dislike Ross Perot because they blame him for letting Bill Clinton sneak into the White House in 1992. They should remember how the authors of the Contract With American took pages from Perot's playbook to mount a comeback victory two years later.