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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Relevance of Swing Voters, Redux

One of the fascinating things about this late phase of the campaign cycle is that you can already begin to see the lines of reasoning form for the inevitable post-election arguments about what happened and why. And as always, many of these arguments will revolve around ancient disputes about the nature of the electorate and the effectiveness of various campaign strategies.
Perhaps the hoariest dispute–so fundamental that we devoted a roundtable discussion to the topic back in March–is over the relative significance of “base” and “swing” voters, however they are defined. If Barack Obama wins by a modest margin amidst signs of a huge turnout of pro-Democratic electoral groups, this argument will hang fire with particular heat.
There has always been a small but vociferous faction of analysts who–for both ideological as well as empirical reasons, I suspect–insist that swing voters really don’t matter at all. And it was interesting to see this faction’s reasoning reflected, if not completely embraced, by the esteemed Ezra Klein in an LA Times column on Sunday.
Meditating somewhat sourly on the vast attention being paid to inexplicably “undecided” voters, a subset of “swing voters,” Ezra cites SUNY-Buffalo Professor James Campbell’s study suggesting that swing voters really don’t much matter in presidential elections:

[C]ampaigns need something to do in September and October. Most of the electorate has chosen a side, and the small sliver that claims still to be puzzling over the pronunciation of the Democrat’s last name could prove decisive.
Or could it? A provocative paper from James Campbell, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, comes to a different conclusion. Examining nine presidential elections, Campbell compared the size of the swing vote (defined here as voters with weak leanings before the heat of the campaign) with the size of the non-swing vote. Swing voters are known to be a minority of the population, but it turns out that they’re not a particularly decisive minority. “In only one of the nine elections, the 1976 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter,” writes Campbell, “did the swing vote majority override an opposite majority among non-swing voters.”
In other words, in eight of the last nine elections, the winner could have lost swing voters but won the race…
Campaigns now raise hundreds of millions of dollars. They can afford both ads aimed at swing voters and “get out the vote” operations meant to motivate base voters. And why begrudge them their efforts? The campaign is long, and people need to keep busy.

I’m sure Ezra isn’t completely serious about the idea that voter persuasion efforts are just busy-work for campaigns, relevant to victory only in the sense of providing a diversion from the really critical base-motivation operations. But still, the underlying contempt for swing voters and swing-voter efforts is unmistakable, so the Campbell hypothesis–which has been discussed here before–is worth reconsidering.
When you really think about it, all Dr. Campbell demonstrated was that “winning” the swing vote won’t win you an election if your base is significantly smaller or less motivated than that of your opponent; and inversely, it’s possible to win an election without “winning” the swing vote. To jump from that observation to a general dismissal of swing voters, however, makes no sense. There’s a lot of distance between zero percent of swing voters and 50%. To ignore that is exactly like suggesting that because John Kerry won independent voters in 2004 while losing the election, it was a waste of time for his campaign to think about independents at all. A vote is a vote, and “winning” this or that category of voters doesn’t matter so much as the contribution every voter makes to an overall victory. If the most efficient way to win is to reduce your margin of defeat in some voter category, whether it’s swing voters or white men or women-with-kids, that’s what you should do.
Moreover, and this is a point that should never be forgotten, swing voters do have more pound-for-pound electoral value than base voters in the sense that so long as they are certain to vote, every vote you win comes out of your opponent’s totals as well, and thus counts twice in terms of the net effect.
Campbell does also provide analysis suggesting that in the two most lopsided landslides in modern history, 1964 and 1972, the winner could have prevailed without a single swing vote. That’s interesting, but hardly any more significant than observing that the landslide winners could have won without a single vote from any number of other voter categories.
What Professor Campbell actually refutes is the idea that swing voters are the only thing that matters in presidential elections. But that’s a straw man, since nobody really believes that. Even my old buddies at the DLC–who’ve devoted an enormous amount of attention to the tasks of identifying swing voters and developing ways to appeal to them (viz. their most recent study of the issue)–are always careful to say that it’s critical to simultaneously energize your base while reaching out to swing voters. And I don’t know a soul in the Democratic Party who doesn’t realize the importance, to some degree or another, of Barack Obama’s “ground game” in this election.
In the end, if Obama wins, it will be interesting to dissect the contributions of various voting groups to victory, and then analyze the actual return-on-investment of various strategies, including swing-voter-persuasion. But let’s keep an open mind on the subject until the votes are in and the dust settles.

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