Swing Voters and Swing Activists
NOTE: This is the fourth item in The Democratic Strategist's Roundtable Discussion of swing and base voter strategies. It's by Chris Bowers, co-founder of Open Left and Treasurer of BlogPac.
In any discussion of “swing voters,” who are typically grouped by demographics or psychographics, it is first important to differentiate themselves from “swing states” in presidential elections. “Swing states” are the perhaps a dozen or so states with partisan voting tendencies in presidential elections that most closely mirror national partisan voting tendencies. In close presidential elections, “swing states” are the states that could narrowly vote for the nominee of either major party no matter who wins the national popular vote. As such, they determine the winner of the Electoral College, and are thus rightfully termed “swing” states.
“Swing voters,” or swing voting demographics, are typically defined as demographic groups with partisan voting patterns that closely mirror those of the national electorate as a whole. But a moment’s reflection should remind us that swing voters are not analogous to swing states. Eking out a narrow victory among such closely-divided groups as Catholics or self-identified “moderates” is meaningless unless it contributes to victory in swing states. The proper goal in appealing to swing voters—and for that matter, all voters—is to outperform historic partisan performance in as many demographic groups as possible, and by as much as possible, thus winning “swing states.”
It is in this fundamental sense that every voting demographic is a swing voter demographic, and the ancient dichotomy between swing and base voter strategies is largely a false choice.
I do not argue that “base voters”--those voters who always vote and who never split their tickets--do not exist. They do, and they are well known to local campaigns and precinct captains. But if any special messaging, campaign resources or assistance of any sort is required to bring a voter to the polls, then that voter is not a “base voter.”
If the outcome of a person’s vote is ever in doubt—because they may not vote, may vote Republican, may be undecided between the two parties, may be undecided between a major party and a third party, or may have a physical illness, disability or travel related conflict that could prevent him or her from voting--then that voter is a swing voter who must be targeted in some fashion by the Democratic campaign in question. If, in order to secure someone’s vote, it is necessary to appeal to that person with a partisan, progressive ideological message, that person is just as much a swing voter as someone whose vote can be secured through a message of bipartisan unity and an anti-ideological message of moderation and pragmatism. Beyond the individual level, unless a voting group has a partisan voting tendency of 100% in favor of a given party, and unless every member of that demographic will always vote without any prompting whatsoever, then it is always possible for the nominees of both major parties to outperform their historic vote share and historic vote total in every single demographic.
Consider, for example, that according to an analysis of national exit polls from the 2004 and the 2006 elections, in 2006 Democrats actually improved their overall share of the national vote more from Democrats, 2.4%, than from Independents, 2.1%. Even though John Kerry won 89% of the Democratic vote, by increasing the Democratic vote for Democrats to a record 93%, and by increasing the self-identified Democratic share of the electorate from 37% to 38%, Democrats gained more among self-identified Democrats than they gained among any other group. Further, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey, the largest gains Republicans made in partisan self-identification from 2000 to 2004 among any demographic group were born again / evangelical white Christians. As a group, at the end of 2004, white, born again / evangelical Christians self-identified as Republicans 8% more than they did in 2000, accounting for the largest partisan shift of any demographic group in the country. While self-identified Democrats would typically be viewed as “base” voters for Democrats, and while white, born again / evangelical Christians would typically be viewed as “base” voters for Republicans, those two groups were actually the two largest “swing” demographics in the 2006 and 2004 elections respectively. Even voting demographics with partisan voting tendencies that favor one party in the extreme should be viewed by both parties as swing demographics worthy of voter targeting efforts.
Every demographic is a swing demographic. It is possible for a nominee to improve on his or her party’s share of the vote in every demographic, and it is also possible for a campaign to increase the size of any demographic group as a percentage of the electorate. As such, at least in terms of votes, the swing voter versus base mobilization question is not a binary opposition, but rather a question of which voters can be captured for the least amount of campaign resources, and what sort of messaging will result in the largest number of votes possible. And it is over this issue of resources where the true base- versus-swing issue emerges.
Unsurprisingly, base voters tend to be disproportionately represented among donors and campaign volunteers. So the real base/swing dilemma is this: how can a campaign maximize its collection of resources from base voters in a way that will it allow effectively spend the most resources targeting the myriad forms of swing voters described above?
On the one hand, while the base provides the resources necessary to target swing voters, messaging that appeals to the base might actually turn off swing voters, rendering the resources a campaign collects from the base useless. On the other hand, messaging that appeals to swing voters could repel or discourage base activists, thus denying a party or a campaign sufficient resources with which to target swing voters. Thus, the swing versus base struggle is actually a struggle over maximizing resource collection and expenditures. Or, to put it another way, it is actually a choice between targeting swing voters and targeting swing activists, defined as base voters who may not deny votes but may deny resources.
Consider examples of both extremes. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Ron Paul’s presidential campaign raised more money than any other Republican campaign for President by a very big margin. However, as of the New Hampshire primary, Ron Paul averaged only 9% in the two traditional early states, had only earned one delegate, and remained stagnant at only about 4% in national polls, well behind less well-heeled rivals such as Mike Huckabee and John McCain. In this instance, the problem is that the Ron Paul campaign secured this overwhelming amount of resources primarily through fringe, libertarian messaging that drastically limited his appeal to the broader Republican electorate. He was able to secure resources from an excited, mobilized, activist base. However, the fringe messaging required to appeal to these activists dramatically lowered the value of his campaign’s resources when targeting swing voter groups.
A contrary example comes from the 2000 Presidential election, when the George Bush campaign outspent the Al Gore campaign by nearly $66,000,000, or roughly 45%. The entire difference in expenditures took place before the 2000 Democratic National Convention, during which time Bush was able to build a substantial, often double-digit, national polling advantage on Gore. In the opposite problem faced by the Ron Paul campaign, for much of the 2000 campaign Al Gore faced a substantial resource deficit to George Bush because his campaign was unable to create the same level of excitement among swing activists. After eight years of appealing mainly to swing voter groups rather than to resource building among swing activists, the Democratic Party was found itself facing an ultimately crippling resource deficit.
So, what should Democrats to do in this situation? How is it possible to generate resources from the base but still have a broad, appealing message to the already extremely diverse groups of swing voters facing Democratic campaigns? In the 2004 election, and especially the 2006 election, Democrats were able to solve this problem primarily through negative, anti-Republican and anti-Bush messaging. Four years ago, John Kerry smashed all fundraising and volunteer records for national Democratic campaigns, spending over $300,000,000 and reducing George Bush’s monetary advantage from nearly 50% against Al Gore to just over 10% against Kerry. Two years later, in 2006, Democratic House challengers raised 60% of what their Republican opponents did, up from 42% in 2004. Four years of ineffective, disastrous Republican trifecta (House, Senate, and presidency) rule in Washington had left the country longing for a change of direction in Washington, and the very realistic prospect of taking over Congress also made the Democratic activist base excited. Anti-Republican sentiment thus created message coherency when targeting swing activists for resources and most groups of swing voters for votes. Democrats raised record amounts of resources, and won over a wide range of receptive swing voters with a coherent, anti-Republican message. According to 2006 exit polls, nearly every demographic group swung more than a net of 6% in favor of Democrats, a testimony to the broad base of anti-Republican swing voters across a wide variety of voting demographics.
Unfortunately, anti-Republican messaging won’t solve this problem for Democrats indefinitely. The more elections Democrats win and the longer they remain in power, fewer and fewer voters will view Republican politicians as primary causes of the problems facing the country. Granted, with an obstructionist Republican Senate minority, and with Bush still in power, this should not pose a real problem for 2008. Democratic Presidential campaigns cumulatively received money more than one million donors even before the Iowa caucuses; every Democratic Party Committee is breaking fundraising records; campaign rallies and email lists have never been larger; the audience for progressive media continues to grow; and campaign volunteering remains at, or near, record levels. However, right now this is because Republicans are still largely in power in Washington, and because the memory of their misrule remains ripe. What happens when the unifying coherency of negative, anti-Republican messaging can no longer apply? What happens when, say, Democrats achieve a trifecta and a governing majority of their own in Washington?
At that point, I believe, the answer no longer rests with Democratic campaign strategy. Swing voters are simply too diverse a group for any single message to appeal to them. Moreover, the messaging needed to appeal to swing activists will eventually diverge from the messaging needed to appeal to swing voters, even if they temporarily converge in the context of ending the Iraq war and reversing an economic downturn.
Once in power, in order for Democrats to appeal both to swing activists and to swing voters over the long-term, Democrats must govern in a manner that makes people’s lives tangibly better. That was the foundation of the New Deal coalition that controlled Congress and the Presidency almost continually from 1932-1968. By vastly expanding access to higher education, home ownership, pensions, and good jobs, not to mention improving the relative standing of American in the world, Democrats made people’s lives better and made them feel good about their country. A new Democratic trifecta can do the same thing. If a Democratic governing majority passes legislation that reduces the cost and improves the quality of health care while providing universal access, it will appeal both to swing activists and swing voters. If Democrats build a green energy economy that creates good jobs, reduces transportation and heating costs, ends dependency on foreign oil, and makes the world a more livable place, it will appeal to both swing activists and swing voters. The same can be said about improving education, or American’s image around the world. Once the unifying coherence of running against Bush and Republican obstruction is gone, real-life accomplishments are the surest, and perhaps the only, way for Democrats to appeal both to swing voters and to swing activists, and to build a durable electoral majority.