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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Swingin’ Peripherals

Anyone who’s paid any attention to this presidential election has heard repeated debates about whether the candidates should pursue “swing voter” strategies focused on persuasion, or “turnout” strategies focused on “mobilizing” or “energizing” the “base.”
There’s a rarely examined assumption behind this debate: that “peripheral” voters–those who might or might not turn out–are “base” voters. This assumption is, I suspect, intimately related to the age-old belief of liberal and conservative activists that non-voters don’t vote because they think there’s not enough difference between the parties. And this belief, in turn, stems from what I can only describe as a total myth: that there’s a “hidden majority” out there among non-voters for a more partisan and ideological candidate.
Today the DLC released an analysis of “peripheral” voters over the last three presidential cycles that shows pretty convincingly that they are (1) not that different from regular voters, (2) they are in fact closer as a group to classic, independent, swing voters, than to committed partisan voters, (3) they are less, not more, partisan and ideologically polarized than the electorate as a whole, and (4) they have to be persuaded, not simply “energized” or “mobilized” to vote.
The good news for Democrats is that peripheral voters tend to lean Democratic, and are in particular not attracted to culturally conservative wedge issues (that’s one reason the conservative myth of millions of Christian conservatives will flood the polls this year is just that –a myth). The cautionary news is that peripheral voters, who are relatively estranged from civic as well as political involvement, don’t particularly trust government. That’s yet another reason that Kerry and other Democrats need to counter the incessant GOP propaganda that they are “big government, tax and spend liberals.”
Since Kerry seems to be taking persuasion of swing voters more seriously than Bush, this analysis suggests the Democrat may have an extra edge on November 2 among peripheral voters in what is shaping up as a high-turnout election.

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