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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Swing/Base Debate: New Directions

Our Roundtable Discussion at this site on base and swing voter strategies surprised me quite a bit. Given the diverse nature of our contributors, and widely varying interpretations in the party of the most recent political trends, I had expected a more traditional argument between those focused on specific categorities of swing voters, and those suggesting that the Democratic base is growing rapidly enough to justify a strategy tailored to mobilization.
Instead, there appeared to be general agrement that base and swing voter strategies need not conflict, and might well work in tandem. But other divergences from the ancient debate on this subject were more interesting.
Robert Creamer and Chris Bowers each proposed a new taxonomy of base and swing voters, with the former dividing the electorate into true base voters plus persuadable and mobilizable voters, and the latter defining anyone who needs motivation to vote as a swing voter, while identifying a subset of base voters as “swing activists” who provide much of the resources necessary to appeal to swing voters.
Joan McCarter, whom we asked to discuss the Mountain West as a “swing region,” added another oft-forgotten distinction: between swing voters and ticket-splitters. The latter have declined in importance nationally in recent years, but still matter a lot in certain parts of the country.
Meanwhile, Al From focused on documenting the stability of partisan and ideological attachments in the electorate, even in the “wave” election of 2006.
And Bill Galston brought the discussion into the context of the current Democratic nomination contest, noting that the basic difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in general election trial heats is that the latter puts a signicantly larger number of swing voters into play, both positively and negatively.
There were other interesting points made in the course of the Roundtable, such as Creamer’s argument that “persuasion messages” are always about candidates, not issues, and Bowers’ important reminder that abstract talk about national swing-voter targets can be irrelevant to the contests in the “swing states” that actually determine presidential elections. And there was a striking convergence between Bowers and From–representing two very different ideological traditions within the Democratic Party–that a successful progressive administration will be the key to long-term expansion of the Democratic base.
Finally, I hope my own contribution to the Roundtable will continue to be useful in the future as an introduction and history of the swing/base debate.
You can download a PDF version of the whole Roundtable here. And we will continue to refer to this debate if and when additional reactions come in.

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