Home / General / On Swing Voters

On Swing Voters


This Yglesias piece on swing voters is excellent. The first crucial point is that, while swing voters are declining, that doesn’t mean they’re non-existent or unimportant:

Let’s begin with the basics. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study conducted a large sample poll and found that 6.7 million Trump voters said they voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2.7 million Clinton voters said they voted for Mitt Romney in 2016. In other words, about 11 percent of Trump voters say they were Obama voters four years earlier and about 4 percent of Clinton voters say they were Romney voters four years earlier.

It’s important to be clear about this — these are small minorities of the public. Speaking loosely, if only 11 percent of fans of a movie enjoyed the sequel, a normal person might say “nobody liked the sequel.”

By the same token, if you’re trying to understand the psychology of the typical Trump voter, then that person is a committed partisan Republican who also voted for Mitt Romney. But it’s not literally true that 10 percent is “nobody.” Indeed, in an era of close elections, it’s the difference between winning and losing.

The switchers are also important because they are not evenly distributed around the country. Obama lost whites with no college degree by a very large margin in 2012, but Clinton did even worse — especially losing the support of the kind of Northern, relatively secular noncollege whites who had not already defected from the GOP. This kind of vote is disproportionately common in the three crucial swing states that delivered Trump his Electoral College victory.

Equally important is who the Romney-Clinton voters were. Even though this was not as large a group of people as the switchers in the other direction, it did include millions of voters. And if every single one of the Romney-Clinton switchers had been a Latino living in Florida or Arizona and repulsed by Trump’s racism, then Clinton would have carried those states and won the Electoral College.

But they didn’t. Instead, Romney-Clinton voters appear to have been concentrated in upscale suburbs of the nation’s largest cities, and a quirk of history is that at the moment, all of the country’s largest cities are in states that are either solidly blue (California, New York, Illinois) or solidly red (Texas). These voters are relevant in many 2018 House races, because in addition to swing voters being real, ticket-splitting voters are very real.

But it’s also critical to note that while swing voters exist, that doesn’t mean that they have the same views as centrist pundits, or that tactics that mobilize base voters will necessarily alienate swing voters:

If you spend a lot of time consuming online political commentary, you’ll find that most of the people who clearly prefer Democrats to Republicans but are nonetheless persistently dyspeptic about the Democratic Party leadership and skeptical of the Democratic Party as an institution are very far to the left ideologically.

Among the actual electorate, however, things look different. Sean McElwee of Data for Progress is a major proponent of mobilizing Obama voters who didn’t vote in 2016 rather than chasing Obama-Trump switchers. And his numbers show, very clearly, that these drop-off voters are more progressive than Obama-Trump voters or Romney-Clinton voters. But, critically, Obama voters who either voted third party or stayed home in 2016 are less progressive than consistent Democrats.

In other words, there’s no reason to see a real tension between chasing swing voters and mobilizing nonvoters in terms of issue positions.

Now, none of this is to deny Dylan Matthews’s point that policy issues overall do not appear to be particularly important factors in American politics. And, of course, all real-world candidates tend to run on a mix of popular and unpopular issues. There’s nothing wrong with taking a stand on something you think is important, even if it’s unpopular — though a wise candidate might prefer to emphasize her popular views and reduce the salience of her less popular ones. But whatever it is that causes people to vote, the important point is that swing voters really do exist. A small but incredibly important group of Americans regularly switch their partisan allegiances, and many people are willing to vote differently down-ballot from how they vote in presidential races.

Appealing to these swing voters isn’t the only way to win elections, but it’s a pretty good strategy, and there’s no reason to believe that using it involves a hard trade-off with trying to mobilize marginal voters or anything else.

Both this and the Matthews piece linked in the post are very good.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text