Democrats have finally figured out that the independents they won in 2006 and 2008 have begun leaving their banner in droves.  Polling numbers for both Barack Obama and Congress have dropped rapidly in the second half of 2009, with Quinnipiac’s under-50% approval rating for Obama just the latest data point in that trend.  But they seem to have a little trouble connecting the dots to the radical agenda and the manner in which they’ve attempted to jam it down American throats this session:

Mounting evidence that independent voters have soured on the Democrats is prompting a debate among party officials about what rhetorical and substantive changes are needed to halt the damage.

Following serious setbacks with independents in off-year elections earlier this month, White House officials attributed the defeats to local factors and said President Barack Obama sees no need to reposition his own image or the Democratic message.

Since then, however, a flurry of new polls makes clear that Democrats are facing deeper problems with independents—the swing voters who swung dramatically toward the party in 2006 and 2008 but who now are registering deep unease with the amount of spending and debt called for under Obama’s agenda in an era of one-party rule in Washington.

A Gallup Poll released last week offered a disturbing glimpse about the state of play: just 14 percent of independents approve of the job Congress is doing, the lowest figure all year. In just the past few days alone, surveys have shown Democratic incumbents trailing Republicans among independent voters by double-digit margins in competitive statewide contests in places as varied as Connecticut, Ohio and Iowa.

The Q-poll data from earlier today shows the problem better than Congressional approval ratings, which are traditionally low even in relatively good times.  Obama has a 20-point approval deficit among independents on the economy (38/58), and a 27-point deficit on Afghanistan (30/57).  Even on an issue where Obama gets wan overall support, foreign policy (49/42), he’s underwater among independents (45/49).

Why does that matter for Congressional Democrats?  First, midterms are in large part a referendum on the President.  Traditionally, a President loses seats in the midterms anyway, even if the President himself remains popular.  However, for an unpopular President, the losses can get very large — as they did for Bill Clinton, who was more popular at this stage of his presidency than Obama.  Second, Democrats hoped to rely on Obama’s popularity to get big turnouts for their re-election campaigns, especially in tough districts.  His collapsing popularity outside of the Democratic base will force them to run against Obama and Pelosi and the Democratic agenda.

But if the Democrats think that the problem is rhetorical, they will find themselves unpleasantly surprised at the midterms.  The problem isn’t a lack of smooth-talking Democrats; if it was, Obama would still have approval ratings in the mid-60s.  The problem is the radical, government-expanding nature of the Democratic agenda.  It’s also tied to the poor performance of their economic program, which was another big-government approach.  People didn’t flood town-hall meetings because the Democrats didn’t talk nicely enough, after all.

The big question will be whether those independents will swing to the GOP in 2010 or just stay home.  If the GOP stays focused on core principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility, the Republicans have a golden opportunity to restore their standing on those issues and get a second look from independents while keeping their base satisfied.