Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer
There are two bits of conventional wisdom about “swing voters” in this day and age that are often accepted without discussion. The first is that these critters have been all but hunted to extinction, or more exactly, have fled into one of the two partisan trenches from the “middle ground” poisoned by polarization. The second is that swing voters are discerning and sensitive souls who equally disdain the fanatics in the donkey and elephant herds, and long for sweetly reasonable compromise “solutions” between left and right. You know, people who nod their heads at newspaper editorials and think Howard Schulz makes sense.
With the benefit of a robust data set of registered voters provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Charlie Cook does a pretty good job of blowing up both of those preconceptions.
First off, there are a lot more swing voters than you might think – as long as you understand how they are defined:
Thirty percent of the respondents, a total of 603, can be called swing voters, who were either undecided or only “probably” going to vote for either Trump or the Democrat. Of the 9 percent who said they would probably vote for Trump, just over half (5 percent of all voters) said there was a chance they would vote for the Democrat, while 4 percent said no chance. Of the 13 percent who would probably vote for the Democrat, just a quarter (3 percent of all voters) said that there was a chance they would vote for Trump, while the others said there was no chance. Those who only probably would vote for one candidate but definitely would not vote for the other have a good chance of either not voting or throwing a vote to a third-party candidate.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The genuine “undecided” vote is only eight percent – a number which, historically, is likely to go down as we near the general election. And of the 22 percent who are leaners, 14 percent are not “swinging” between the two major parties, but swinging between voting for one of those parties, voting for a minor party, or staying home. So nearly half of “swing voters” are really more like base voters who need to be convinced to show up at the polls without straying into the ranks of the Greens or the Libertarians. And of the other half, roughly equal shares are truly undecided or are predisposed towards one party or the other (with Democrats holding a significant advantage in that respect.
But how will those who are up for grabs make their decisions? That leads to the other preconception, the stereotype of swing voters as high-information folk who have contempt for the ignorant armies clashing by night. That’s not who they are, notes Cook:
Swing voters tend to be younger, more moderate, and less engaged in politics compared to those who have decided and to the overall electorate. While 72 percent of voters who are 65 years of age or older have decided for sure, just 47 percent of 18-29-year-olds have decided….
When asked, “How much attention do you normally pay to what is going on in national government and politics?” 57 percent of voters and 68 percent of decided voters said they pay a lot of attention, but only 39 percent of swing voters said so. Twice as many swing voters said they pay only a little attention or none at all—17 percent, compared with just 8 percent of those who are decided.
Not surprisingly, fewer swing voters believe it is important who wins. When asked whether it really matters who wins, somewhat matters, or doesn’t really matter, 82 percent of all voters and 92 percent of decided voters said they believe it matters, but just 66 percent of swing voters said they believe it really matters.
So these are on average less-informed, less-discerning voters who often can’t tell the difference between two parties that offer wildly different visions of America’s future and the rights our citizens should possess. They tend to be younger, which means higher personal mobility, fewer connections to civic life, and a significantly lower probability to vote. I strongly suspect their relatively high level of self-identification as “moderates” has little or nothing to do with some “centrist” policy agenda, and more to do with a disinclination (or incapacity) to think ideologically at all.
This goes to a third misconception about swing voters that Cook doesn’t explicitly address, but that follows from his analysis. Traditionally, it is assumed that parties and candidates must choose between “mobilization” strategies aimed at base voters and “persuasion” strategies aimed at swing voters. Ideally, you want to do both, but there is an inevitable tension between beating on people with big sticks to go smite the partisan foe (one of the oldest and most important “mobilization” techniques is known as “knock and drag,” which means exactly what it sounds like), and convincing voters who are likely to vote to go your way rather than the other.
But if the most typical swing voters are, as Cook suggests, those who aren’t motivated to vote, and need convincing not that one candidate is better than the other but that the choice is consequential, then beating on them with big sticks makes a lot of sense, too – particularly for Democrats who lost a lot of crucial voters in 2016 because they figured Clinton had already won. Will such efforts sometimes fail? Yes, but again, the odds are that the turned-off swing voter won’t join the ranks of the opposition but will go to work or stay home on Election Day and make evening plans to watch washed-up pols compete on Dancing With the Stars.
As Cook concludes, we may not know how many “swing voters” are actually going to vote until the last minute:
The key takeaway from this analysis is that while swing voters don’t look too different from the overall electorate in terms of demographics, they are very different temperamentally. Since they pay less attention than other voters and are less likely to believe that the outcome is important, you just have to wonder how many of these undecided will really vote. Further, we can expect those who do to check into the race very late.
If the 2020 race goes down to the wire looking very close, swing voters “checking in” to politics at the last minute will be hit with an intense barrage of claims that this is the most important moment in American history since at least 1861. And that’s more likely to get them off the sofa than all the split-the-differences compromise policy proposals you can imagine. It’s one of a number of reasons that Democrats shouldn’t just pick their most “centrist” candidate and expect swing voters to fall into their arms.