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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Swing Voters in NH: Everything or Nothing?

One of those habits in political journalism that makes me absolutely crazy is the tendency to engage in competing exaggerations every time the subject of “swing voters” comes up. There’s a good example in today’s Washington Post, where Alec MacGillis has a piece entitled: “In N.H., the Swing Vote Is Vanishing.”
A big chunk of the the article is devoted to the argument that while the percentage of voters registering as “undeclared” (i.e., independent) in NH has ballooned to 44 percent, a lot of those folks actually vote for one party or the other. This is hardly a novel observation, for NH or anywhere else. And it is useful to correct the impression that the number of swing voters is rapidly increasing, which some journalists erroneously fall for by conflating self-identified independents with swing voters.
But are swing voters really “vanishing?” To make his point, MacGillis cites estimates that “at most a third of those voters are seen as true independents.” If that’s so, then maybe 14 percent of the NH electorate is composed of true, unattached, swing voters. That’s a lot of folks, and hardly a “vanishing” category.
The real point of MacGillis’ piece is that the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates are a lot sharper than in 2000, meaning that John McCain and Barack Obama aren’t in direct competition for undeclared voters, as McCain and Bill Bradley appeared to be in 2000. Moreover, the Democratic contest is the real indie-magnet this year. For that very reason, McCain’s own staffers admit that the universe of undeclared voters they are trying to attract is smaller than in 2000.
But they are still there, and still matter, for candidates in both parties. And down the road, their numbers and nature might change in a competitive general election, when candidate rhetoric is less controlled by the need to compete for highly partisan “base” voters.
In other words, the topic of swing voters, and the closely related topic of base voters, require a lot more nuanced analysis than that afforded by ax-grinding “they are everything” and “they are nothing” exaggerations. And that’s why The Democratic Strategist is planning a special roundtable discussion of the subject for the beginning of the New Year. Stay tuned.

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