A common view these days, particularly on the left, is that swing voters have disappeared. This is comforting for those who see slogans like “Abolish ICE!” as having no real downside, since there are no persuadable swing voters out there to alienate. Just need to get those juices flowing among the Democratic base!
That would make life easier, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, in the real world of politics, this is not remotely true. Matt Yglesias does a good job of demonstrating this in a lengthy article just published on Vox.. Some of his main points:
“Swing voters have gotten rarer over time, but there are definitely swing voters, and their decision to swing one way or the other makes a difference in politics…..The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study conducted a large sample poll and found that 6.7 million Trump voters said they voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2.7 million Clinton voters said they voted for Mitt Romney in 2016. In other words, about 11 percent of Trump voters say they were Obama voters four years earlier and about 4 percent of Clinton voters say they were Romney voters four years earlier….The switchers are also important because they are not evenly distributed around the country. Obama lost whites with no college degree by a very large margin in 2012, but Clinton did even worse — especially losing the support of the kind of Northern, relatively secular noncollege whites who had not already defected from the GOP. This kind of vote is disproportionately common in the three crucial swing states that delivered Trump his Electoral College victory….
Swing voters themselves are very real, concern about alienating them with unpopular positions is valid, and nothing about Trump’s election win should be seen as debunking the basic conventional wisdom about all of this. Even more importantly, there’s relatively little reason to believe that chasing swing voters requires sharp trade-offs with other electoral strategies.
Probably the biggest fallacy in the dialogue about swing voters is the widely stated — but rarely examined — notion that a political party could try to focus on “mobilizing the base” instead of persuading swing voters.
This is, however, both a conceptual and empirical confusion. For starters, the actual base of a political party is almost by definition the people you don’t need to work on mobilizing — the party regulars who are habituated to voting and loyal to the party as an institution. The people you would want to mobilize are people you have reason to believe would vote for you if forced to vote, but who for one reason or other are disinclined to actually show up…..
There’s nothing wrong with taking a stand on something you think is important, even if it’s unpopular — though a wise candidate might prefer to emphasize her popular views and reduce the salience of her less popular ones. But whatever it is that causes people to vote, the important point is that swing voters really do exist. A small but incredibly important group of Americans regularly switch their partisan allegiances, and many people are willing to vote differently down-ballot from how they vote in presidential races.
Appealing to these swing voters isn’t the only way to win elections, but it’s a pretty good strategy, and there’s no reason to believe that using it involves a hard trade-off with trying to mobilize marginal voters or anything else.”
Yglesias, as is common, thinks about swing voters in his article as voters who toggled between one party and another. That’s fine but let me suggest another way of thinking about it that touches base with the various partisan and demographic characteristics frequently associated with swing voters.
The very term “swing voter” deserves a lot more scrutiny than it generally earns. The term is thrown around carelessly and rarely defined clearly. The general image seems to be that there are two opposing armies, each army 100 percent likely to vote for their party, and then some voters in the middle who are undecided. Maybe that’s not the right way to look at it.
Instead, think of it this way. For an individual voter to qualify as a swing voter, the relevant criterion that needs to be fulfilled is simply persuadability. And that’s not a quality that’s exclusive only to those who are completely undecided, or who are only weakly committed to a candidate. Even those who are moderately committed can be persuaded to deepen their commitment. And the deepening of an existing affiliation with a candidate can be just as significant, both statistically and electorally speaking, as attracting mild commitment from someone who had previously been mildly committed to another candidate.
The important factor is not where voters’ inclinations started out, but the fact that their inclinations were changed at all. The act of persuading a swing voter has traditionally been thought of as moving a given voter from more likely to vote against a given candidate to more likely to vote for him—say from 55 percent likely to vote against to 55 percent likely to vote for. But it could also mean moving that voter from somewhat likely to vote for a candidate to very likely to support that candidate (say from 55 percent likelihood to 65 percent)—or, for that matter, from very likely to almost certain (65 percent to 75 percent). All three of these examples are mathematically equivalent—and it makes sense to think of them all as swing voters.
A bit more math may help clarify the point. If there are 100 voters with a probability of just 45 percent of voting for your candidate, then you would expect your candidate to lose by 10 votes, assuming everyone voted (45 for vs. 55 against). If you persuaded these 100 voters to have slightly positive feelings towards your candidate—say, a 55 percent probability of voting for him—than he should receive a net gain of 10 votes (55 for vs. 45 against). Overall, then, as your candidate moves from 45 to 55 percent favorability, his campaign experiences a marginal shift of 20 votes—from losing by 10 votes to winning by 10 votes. Now let’s say your 100 voters start out with a 65 percent likelihood voting for your candidate—that’s a margin of +30 if they all vote (65 for vs. 35 against). If you bump up that probability to 75 percent, you now have a margin of +50 (75 for vs. 25 against). The net gain in margin from shifting probability of support from 65 to 75 percent? Twenty votes, just as in the previous example.
Persuadability, then, is not logically restricted to voters in the center; it can potentially be far more broadly distributed. That is what political scientist William Mayer found in his analysis of swing voters based on National Election Study data. Swing voters are least likely to be found among strong partisans (12 percent of this group); more likely to be found among independent leaners (27 percent) and weak partisans (28 percent); and most likely to be found among pure independents (40 percent). But since pure independents are such a small group, they wind up being just 13 percent of all swing voters, actually less than the number of strong partisans among swingers (18 percent).
Another 28 percent of swing voters are independent leaners, and the largest group, 42 percent, are weak partisans. Thus the overwhelming majority (70 percent) of swing voters are weak or independent leaning partisans—the kind of voters whose probability of support for “their” candidate is more usefully thought of as being movable from 70 to 80 percent than from 45 to 55 percent.
If swing voters are not clustered in the center of the political distribution, are they at least clustered in particular demographic groups where campaigns can get at them? Here the research also suggests that the intuitive and popular conception is wrong. According to Mayer and others, demographic differences between swing and nonswing voters are generally modest. The idea that swingers are heavily concentrated in special groups like “soccer moms” or broader ones like the white working class or Hispanics is incorrect. In reality, swing voters are scattered throughout the social structure.
So there you have it. Far from disappearing, swing voters are everywhere! Democrats should keep this in mind as we move toward a very promising November election.