“Base versus Swing” has been an ancient strategic choice in politics, and it’s coming up again, as I discussed this week at New York.
In these days of intense partisan polarization, driven in no small part by an intensely polarizing president, it’s become commonplace to argue that the politics of persuasion don’t matter anymore, and that elections are won by “energizing” or “mobilizing” one’s own party base. And it’s true that with the number of swing voters dwindling, turnout strategies have become indispensable in any competitive election.
But there are limits to base-mobilization, as veteran political reporter Ron Brownstein notes in an observation on Trump’s incessant efforts to keep his troops in a hate frenzy:
“Trump’s unrelenting emphasis on stoking that base—both in his rhetoric and through his policies…[is] providing the fuel for Democrats to mobilize their own core constituencies, particularly young people and nonwhite voters.”
In other words, every vote you get by motivating core constituencies to turn out to vote via highly emotional messages is at least partly offset by the stimulus you provide for your opponent’s core constituencies. Meanwhile, even if there aren’t a lot of swing voters who are very likely to vote, every one you “flip” by persuasion gives you two net votes — one for you, one less for your opponent. Less than one versus two: It’s always worth the trouble to devote some attention to persuasion.
Brownstein goes on to discuss a second problem with Trump’s base-mobilization emphasis: it erodes the incentives for people who don’t much care for him nonetheless to pull the lever for him because they like his policies or their effects:
“Trump [is trying] to pump up his base by acting in exactly the manner that pushes away so many voters who are content with the economy but disenchanted with his behavior….
“[P]olling throughout Trump’s presidency has consistently shown that economic improvement hasn’t lifted him as much as earlier presidents. Across many of the key groups in the electorate, from young people to white college graduates, Trump’s job-approval rating consistently runs at least 25 points below the share of voters who hold positive views about either the national economy or their personal financial situation.
“The result is that Trump attracts much less support than his predecessors did—in terms of approval rating and potential support for reelection—among voters who say they are satisfied with the economy.”
Because — to put it mildly — rational persuasion isn’t the 45th president’s style, he will likely supplement his base-tending with savage attacks on his Democratic opponent aimed at making her or him equally unpleasant to swing voters. If 2016 was any guide, he’ll supplement this strategy with overt and covert efforts to suppress Democratic turnout (apparently a major focus of Trump’s social media strategy) by repeating intra-party Democratic complaints about the ultimate nominee. His Republican allies at the state level, of course, will seek to suppress Democratic turnout in more literal ways by planting mines along the path to the ballot box for young and minority voters.
Still, a “persuasion” prong of his strategy would improve Trump’s odds of victory. And Democrats, too, should keep in mind that a pure turnout battle could be perilous.
Is there a dichotomy between the swing-vs.-base choice in the primary campaign and the general election? The swing voters presumably do not elect either party’s nominee, the base does that. Hence, a political strategy designed to rally the base, a platform which is bound to prove popular with them, may get you nominated. But, what if you promised all the constituent groups in the base things which will come at the expense of the swing voters? A strategy which gets you nominated can get you defeated in the general election.