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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

November 3: The Truth About Swing Voters


I know at this point of every election cycle, political people are supposed to feel reverently towards swing voters. But sometimes you just have to tell the truth, so I did at New York:

If you’ve been following the midterms, you know there are a lot of close Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. The irony is that if you are tuned in to what’s happening, the odds are low that you are among the small group of voters who will determine the results next week. Call them “swing voters,” “persuadable voters,” or simply “undecided” or “late-deciding voters,” the people with the most power to shape American government for the next two years are typically underinformed about, if not thoroughly alienated from, government and the political system. And as Lee Drutman and Charlotte Hill explain in a New York Times essay, “swing voters” are often far from being the thoughtful moderates that the conventional wisdom imagines:

“If we consider only voting behavior, the number of ‘floating voters’ — those who have voted for presidential candidates from both major parties at some point in the last four elections — dropped to 5.2 percent in 2012 (down from an average of 12 percent from 1952 to 1980). In 2022, new polling suggests swing voters could make up as little as 3 percent of the electorate …

“Swing voters hold an idiosyncratic mix of priorities and values that scramble the common liberal-conservative divide. Some are economically liberal and socially conservative, while others, albeit relatively few, are the reverse. Many are holdouts from another political era: conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans who no longer feel at home in their party but who haven’t (yet) formally switched to the other side.

“But this is not to say that swing voters are moderates. Undecideds are just as likely as partisans to hold a mix of extreme and mainstream positions. The only difference is that these positions do not neatly align with those of one party.”

They’re not typically moderate or milquetoasty in their attitudes, either, They’re often angry, yet disengaged.

“[If] a shared outlook binds swing voters, it mostly seems to be generalized disdain for both major parties and a kind of anti-system, anti-partisan outlook. This only perpetuates their disengagement. It also leads to more candidates running against Washington, which further undermines trust in government.”

In fact, this disdain for politicians means that negative campaigning, featuring character attacks on opponents as corrupt charlatans, falls on fallow ground in swing-voter-land. These voters often assume the worst of politicians, so they accept this “information” even if it’s being spewed by ad agencies hired by other politicians. And all the nastiness only adds to this group’s civic estrangement.

This year, there is a small subgroup of swing voters in what CNN’s Ron Brownstein calls the “‘double negative election,’ in which most voters are expressing doubts about each party,” as reflected in low job-approval ratings for President Biden alongside low favorability ratings for Republican candidates:

“[R]ecent CNN polls in several key Senate races show that a large, and potentially decisive, slice of voters both disapprove of Biden’s performance and view the GOP nominee unfavorably: 9 percent in Wisconsin, 11 percent in Nevada, 13 percent in Pennsylvania, and 15 percent in Arizona, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit.

“’The real question comes down to that group of independents in the middle, and who votes at the end,’ says Paul Maslin, a long-time Democratic pollster. ‘Is it people saying, “I hate inflation, crime is wrecking this big city I live in,” or people saying, “I’m sorry, but Herschel Walker is a clown, Mehmet Oz is a clown … Blake Masters is a joke,” and they go back to [the Democrats]? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.’”

Of course, it’s easier for politicians to expand on these voters’ negative feelings about their opponents rather than convincing them their party isn’t so bad. So you wind up with the chimera of a political system dominated by partisans who hold diametrically opposed views on a whole range of economic and cultural issues being controlled by swing voters who dislike them all. Indeed, as Drutman and Hill point out, some swing voters prefer divided government because they don’t trust anyone to govern, leading to tactical voting aimed at perpetuating gridlock as an alternative to the kind of clear governing agenda needed to meet big challenges. And so the cycle of frustration, alienation, and poorly performing government goes on down the road to perdition.

Drutman and Hill make a compelling case for changing our system of electing legislators to one of proportional representation wherein swing voters lose most of their decisive power and those frustrated with the political system can find outlets in viable minor parties rather than paralyzing government altogether. Maybe that will happen someday.

For now, however, it is extremely likely that Democrats will lose their rare governing trifecta next week mostly due to swing voters who’ve decided their unhappiness with the status quo outweighs their fears about Republican extremism. Two years from now, some of these same people may vote for an ex-president with such contempt for voters that he refuses to accept their judgment of his performance. The risk remains that low-information, low-trust swing voters may be the death of us as a functioning democracy.

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