Where will the 2012 presidential and congressional elections be won or lost? Political analyst Charlie Cook says look to the block of independent voters "sitting between the 40-yard lines."
Addressing more than 400 business people in Hartford yesterday at CBIA's Annual Meeting, Cook [pictured above] said candidates needed to focus on those voters who don't declare allegiance to either of the two major parties.
Looking at the 2006 and 2010 congressional races, Cook noted that the majority of registered Republicans voted for GOP candidates, while more than 90 percent of registered Democrats voted Democrat.
"Both parties hold serve very well," explained Cook, the editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report. "You've got to get your mojo from independent voters."
In 2006, when Democrats won both chambers of Congress, they carried the independent vote by an 18-point margin.
Four years later, when Republicans took the House and trimmed down the Democrat margin in the Senate, they also carried independents by an 18-point margin.
"Conservatives and Republicans have passion. Liberals and Democrats have passion," Cook said. "But independent voters have lives.
"Independent voters are really good at saying what they're unhappy about and if they're unhappy with you, they're going to put on hobnail boots and kick the daylight out of you."
Cook's early forecast sees the Republicans losing some seats in the House, where they hold a 242-193 seat advantage, while retaining their majority.
In the Senate, where he sees 10 vulnerable Democrat seats and "two or three" uncertain GOP seats, Cook expects Democrats to lose from three to six seats. With two independent Senators caucusing with Democrats, that party currently has a fragile 53-47 majority.
"Over recent years elections have become a lot more volatile and a lot more tumultuous," Cook said. "And there's no reeason to think the volatility is going to come to an end."
As for the presidential election, Cook called the historical context "breathtaking," noting that from the Truman presidency through George W. Bush, there were 20 months where unemployment sat at nine percent or higher.
The unemployment rate in the United States is 9.1 percent. It was nine percent or worse for 27 of the past 29 months.
"You own it"
"Did he [President Barack Obama] inherit this mess? Absolutely," Cook said. "The economy was in a horrible state when he got elected and getting worse, but that doesn't matter. Once you're in office, it's yours. You own it."
Cook said 12 months from Election Day, the president's approval rating becomes an important predicitive factor, and gains in relevance each month. At 48 percent and above, incumbents win. Below 48 percent? They lose.
President Obama's approval rating averaged 41 percent over the last three months.
"Incumbent presidents don't get elected with economies that look like our economy looks like now," Cook said.
"Can things change between now and next November? Possibly. But the economy isn't going to turn around quickly -- we're looking at 8.9 percent unemployment fourth quarter next year, just two-tenths of a percent lower than now."
That last statement came with a caveat. Cook explained that Republicans needed "to choose between their hearts and their heads," when nominating the party's candidate for president.