Voting Booths

I think we all know the personality type that is cynical about politics regardless of the circumstances. We all know some people who have a consistent “throw the bums out” attitude. You can measure the broad electorate’s shifting attitudes toward the president or Congress, but some people are perpetually disgruntled by nature.

I don’t know if you can really call them swing voters, although their votes reliably swing back and forth depending on which party needs to be thrown out. A true swing voter should be persuadable, and these folks are the furthest thing from persuadable. They can’t be convinced that anyone can be trusted or is worth a good goddamn. They generally don’t have time for political promises (except, perhaps, the most utopian), so their ideological commitment is minimal and easily overcome by a general dislike of any politician or party that actually wields any power.

These are the folks who like term limits because it saves them the trouble of worrying about whether they’ll succeed in throwing the bums out. I find these people boring and naive. They’re the very definition of downers, made all the more annoying by their pretense of sophistication and their contempt for anyone who has an ounce of hope or idealism.

They probably make up close to a seventh of the voting public. When you add in the folks who have concluded that present circumstances justify putting a pox on both major parties, the number comes in at about eighteen percent, and they can make or break the winners of the upcoming midterm elections. Unfortunately for the Republicans, it’s their turn to taste these voters’ wrath:

In our review of the 2016 election, one of the clues we missed on Donald Trump was his overperformance among voters who disliked BOTH Trump and Hillary Clinton. These voters made up 18 percent of voters in our merged NBC/WSJ polls of 2016, and they disproportionately broke for Trump and Republicans on the generic ballot.

Well, learning from that 2016 lesson, here is the merged congressional preference among voters with a negative view of BOTH parties:

2010 merged NBC/WSJ: 49 percent GOP, 23 percent DEM (R+26)
2014 merged NBC/WSJ: 51 percent GOP, 24 percent DEM (R+27)
2018 merged NBC/WSJ (so far): 50 percent DEM, 36 percent GOP (D+14)

It’s really pretty easy to predict this. All other things being equal, if both parties are worthless then the party to punish is the one with the power. If power is divided, then the party that holds the White House gets blasted, although the effect in that circumstance might be less intense.

There’s not much politicians or political parties can do about this bunch. When they produce things people like, the percentage of the electorate that will vote to punish will go done somewhat, but the party in power needs to focus on making up for this built in and predictable deficit in other ways.

If you remember Sean Quinn’s anecdote from the 2008 election, you know what I mean.

A man canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, “We’re voting for the nigger!” At which point the housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband’s declaration.

I have no doubt that that couple voted for Romney fours your later and for Trump four years after that. And they’ll probably vote for a Democrat in 2020, because while they might be racist (or overly deferential to their spouse), they aren’t voting based on issues. Whoever is in power is a bum, and that never changes.

You’ve probably heard political analysts say that a president’s party does poorly in his first midterm election so many times that you’re sick of hearing it, but you don’t often hear it explained why this is such a consistent pattern. Part of it is that presidents come in filled with goals, ambition and momentum, and then make changes that are disruptive and arouse opposition. But part of it is baked in the cake from these unpersuadable swing voters.

This time, it’s the GOP that’ll get its turn in the barrel. Considering the Senate map and the way congressional districts are drawn, and the geographical concentration of Democratic votes, it’s one of the few political disadvantages the GOP will have this fall.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at