Swing Voter’s Aren’t Always Who You Think They Are

In the New York Times yesterday, Rebecca Berg offered a discussion of the perennial topic of “swing voters” that was useful mainly for the pervasive myths she criticized, beginning with the most threadbare but pervasive: the confusion of “swing voters” with self-identified “independents.” The real size of the swing vote is a lot more meager:

In spite of clichés about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.

The reference to “Nascar dads and Walmart moms” exposes another myth: that swing voters neatly fall into discernible subgroups that can be appealed to en masse. Sometimes that’s sorta true, sometimes not so much, and for that matter, swing voters in one state aren’t necessarily identical to swing voters in another:

“There is so much pop psychology surrounding swing voters, but there is very little evidence that there are key demographics in the population that are inherently swing voters,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “That doesn’t mean that in a particular election you can’t drill down, down, down, down and identify a group of swing voters. But how big is that group really, and is that group a swing group in a chronic sense? Probably not….”

A senior Romney aide, who requested anonymity discussing strategy, says the campaign’s microtargeting has identified specific swing-voter-rich counties in swing states: In Virginia, for example, a large number of swing voters are concentrated in Fairfax County, just outside the District of Columbia; in Ohio, by contrast, undecided or persuadable voters are scattered throughout the state. In some cases, demographic patterns emerge: In Arapahoe County, Colo., just outside Denver, the majority of swing voters will probably be women, the aide said.

On top of everything else, “swing voters” must be divided into poorly motivated people who support one candidate over another and are “swinging” between voting and non-voting, and those rare and greatly prized beasts, the certain voter who is undecided between candidates, and thus whose “swing” is worth two net votes to the winner.

The closer we get to election day, the more important it is to use some precision in talking about swing voters–and in general, about both persuasion and mobilization efforts by the campaigns.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.