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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Independents Vs. Persuadable Swing Voters

In his Washington Post Politics article, “Why political independents are political independents” Philip Bump writes:

A frequently observed trend in American politics is the rise of self-identified independents. In Gallup’s most-recent estimation, 42 percent of Americans say that they’re independent and not members of either political party. The last time more people identified as a member of a party than as independents was in 2012.

It’s a weird trend in a moment of spiking partisanship, but it’s easy to see how the two could overlap. As partisans become more partisan, it drives some people away from parties entirely. Those independents aren’t then independent in the sense that they vote for members of each party; most independents vote consistently with one party or the other. In the vernacular, they’re leaners — they lean to the Democrats or the Republicans….In Gallup’s latest poll, only 7 percent of independents don’t lean to one party or the other.

In other words, most “Independents” are either Republican-lite or Democrat-lite. Some of the 7 percent of voters who are genuine Independents are part of the “swing voter” category. Even though they call themsleves Independents, they may cast a ballot for a Democrat or Republican on occasion. Others vote for third party candidates. Even though they voted in the last election, some may not vote at all in the next one.

But the swing voter category is larger than Independents because it includes some who self-i.d. as either Republican or Democrat. but may occasionally or frequently vote for the other party, such as many “Reagan Democrats.” Swing voters are the primary targets of campaign because they are more likely to be genuine “persuadable” voters. Significant Democratic Party resources are directed toward winning back Reagan Democrats, a primary battelfield of the struggle for hearts and minds.

If you are running a political campaign, the most relevant way to look at the percentage of the ‘Independents’ electoral segment is to use it as a rough guideline for understanding your electorate. It’s hard to target them for special appeals, and it wouldn’t be a cost-effective use of your time. Keep them in mind in advertising, but don’t spend too much time and effort locating them.

For Democrats, swing voters are more of interest, especially since ample polling data indicates that many voters who identify themselves as “conservatives” hold liberal views on a number of issues. Swing voters include some Independents, but also Dem and GOP partisans, and some who don’t identify as anything. But not all swing voters are persuadable. Some have already made up their minds, or are otherwise uninterested in  new information, arguments and appeals.

If there is a ‘holy grail’ of Amerian politics, it is the elusive persuadable swing voter (PSV). They decide the outcomes of some elections, particularly in a highly-partisan, competitive political environment, in which Democrats and Republicans are evenly matched – like we so often have today. Perhaps the most effective way to find them is to knock on as many front doors as possible and talk with people, which campaigns should do for other reasons as well — like shoring up base voters. After writing down their contact info, get back to them with carefully-calibrated “touches.”

‘Touches’ can be tricky. As Beth Donahower notes in her post, “Get Out the Vote and Super Voters,” at Political Resources Online:

How many times have you heard that you need to contact targeted voters six times, seven times, nine times, or more? These numbers, which are different based upon who you talk to, are at best derived from the average number of touches that you need to persuade a voter and get the voter to the polls. The truth is you don’t need to contact targeted voters a specific number of times to win their support and ensure that they are going to the polls on Election Day; you need to contact them as much or as little as necessary to persuade them and get them out to vote.

The challenge is understanding groups of voters well enough to know what that necessary number is. It could be zero touches, seven, or twenty. Some of your targeted voters need a lot of attention and others, like super voters, you can skip your traditional GOTV calls and mail.

The same principle applies to your scripts and messaging. The better you understand each segment of your targeted voters, the better you can tailor your communication with them. In the case of super voters, leverage your communication with them by tapping into their political prowess and their connections in the community. It’s almost condescending for someone to tell a super voter who has voted every election for the last thirty years that they vote at the local fire hall. They know that! Instead, tap into the intelligence that they can provide to the campaign and turn their interest in politics into volunteerism.

Candidates and campaigns should appeal to the elusive PSVs with ads, media interviews, statements, debates and policies. They can be important in a close race, but they are a small group, compared to base voters, who are easier to reach with specific appeals and the all-important late reminders to vote. Each campaign will have to decide on the wisest allocation of resources to reach PSVs vs. their base. But every winning candidate has to appeal to both groups.

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