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Will the Real Swingers Please Stand Up?

By Alan Abramowitz

Mark Penn, in his March 21 Washington Post op-ed, is correct that swing voters continue to play an important role in U.S. elections but he greatly exaggerates the size of the independent vote and the volatility of the electorate. While the percentage of independent identifiers has increased since the 1950s, fully three-fourths of these independents lean toward one party or the other according to the 2004 American National Election Study and "leaning independents" vote overwhelmingly for the party that they lean toward. Only 7 percent of 2004 voters were "pure independents" with no party preference whatsoever.

Moreover, contrary to Penn's claim that ticket-splitting is on the rise, ticket-splitting has actually been declining in the U.S. since the 1970s. According to NES data, in 2004 only 16.6% of voters split their presidential and congressional vote compared with 26.9% during the 1970s and 25.4% during the 1980s. And partisan voting has been increasing over time. In 1952, 76.6% of presidential votes were cast by partisans for their own party's candidate; in 2004, a record 85.9% of presidential votes were cast by partisans for their own party's candidate.

Finally, Penn's claim of massive swings in candidate preferences during the 2004 presidential campaign is extremely dubious. The swings that he reports between individual Gallup Polls largely reflect random error and the effects of Gallupís notorious likely voter screen. Computing the average level of support for Bush and Kerry across all major polls during the fall campaign shows that support for the major party candidates was actually extremely stable.