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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

All About the Swingers

Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center, has a HuffPo article, “You Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing,” underscoring the point that presidential campaigns are not just about swing voters; they are about swing voters in swing states. As Kaplan explains:

Based on history and polling, Democrats can probably count on winning 14 states in November, for 182 electoral votes. (Those are Cook Political Report numbers, which most insiders cite, and they’ll change between now and the election, but as a snapshot, it’s close enough.) Republicans can probably count on 23 states, for 191 electoral votes, though some people think Arizona (11 electoral votes) without John McCain on the ticket is also up for grabs.
So ignore national polls. It’s only the 14 or 15 remaining states that really matter to campaigns. If you don’t live in one of them, your local airwaves won’t be carpet-bombing you with presidential attack ads, and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney won’t be heading your way unless there’s money to be raised. Sure, they’ll have field offices in every solid and likely state, and they’ll say they’re taking nothing for granted, complacency is their biggest enemy, blah blah blah, but it’s not your vote they’ll be ardently wooing.
About 50 million presidential ballots were cast in the 15 swing states in 2008. By October, it’s a good guess that the voting populations in those states will be closely divided, with Romney and Obama each getting about 45 percent. It’s the 5 million lucky duckies who say they don’t know who they’ll vote for in November who’ll be getting the most campaign love.

Targeting those 5 million swingers in swing states is not so easy, so presidential campaigns target “subsets,” as Kaplan explains:

…The Obama campaign, for example, has scenarios that start with the 246 electoral votes that John Kerry won in 2004, and then to reach 270, they have a “west path” (add Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Iowa); a “south path” (add North Carolina and Virginia); a “midwest path” (add Ohio and Iowa); and a Florida path.
Sure, there’ll be an intense effort by both sides to mobilize the highest percentage of their partisans in those states that they can. But getting 50.1 percent of the swing voters is the name of the game. In a big state like Florida, that’s around 420,000 people. But in Colorado, 125,000 voters may swing the election; in Iowa, about 75,000; in New Mexico, fewer than 45,000; in New Hampshire, fewer than 4,000. You get the idea. The presidential election could easily be decided by a crowd that wouldn’t fill the Rose Bowl.

As for the swing states swingers, Kaplan notes that they are not necessarily “ideologically centrist” and “their views are all over the map.” Many are emphatically not political junkies. “Unlike you, that’s not their idea of a good time.” But they are persuadable. Hence the never-ending search for messages that will resonate with them, especially in the final weeks of the campaign when most of them start tuning in.
Kaplan doesn’t say so directly, but he suggests that many of these highly-prized swing voters are, in fact, low-information voters. That raises the possibility that campaign resources might be better deployed in turning out the base.

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