Ever since the contested election of 2000, when the presidential race resulted in a near tie, pundits have pointed to the polarized, 50-50 nature of American politics.
Now, with a chastened President Bush talking the language of common ground and Democrats owing their takeover of the House and the Senate to political independents, the center is back.
The GOP strategy of the past several elections – of mobilizing its most committed voters at the expense of appealing to swing voters in the middle – is fading fast.
It may be a fleeting moment, and it does not spell the end of polarization. According to national exit poll data, more than 90 percent of self-identified Republicans and Democrats voted for candidates of their own party for the House, as they did in 2004. But among independents, who represent about a quarter of the electorate, there was a decided tilt toward Democrats on Tuesday: 57 percent voted Democratic, and 39 percent voted Republican. In the 2004 House race, the independent tilt toward Democrats was 50 to 46.
An examination of exit polls from Senate races that proved key to the Democrats' apparent takeover shows a similarly strong tilt toward Democrats among independents.
On Thursday afternoon Sen. George Allen conceded defeat to Democrat James Webb, which gives the Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate.
Nationally, "the independents won this election for us," Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a Monitor breakfast Thursday.
The Republican strategy of turning out "base" supporters and just enough independents to win the White House and Congress – which worked in the past three elections – could not withstand the wave of voter discontent over Iraq, ethics, and the economy that swept the nation this year. Many longstanding Republican members representing swing or Democratic-leaning districts, such as Jim Leach in Iowa, Clay Shaw in Florida, Nancy Johnson in Connecticut, and Anne Northup in Kentucky, lost their seats. None were tainted by ethics problems, or significantly less well-thought-of by their constituents than in previous years. But they had R's after their names.