I happened to come across a political piece few days ago written by Democratic strategist and demographer Ruy Texiera. In the article Texiera posits that the journalistic term of swing voter is wrong. Instead, the term swing voter in American political lexicon has basically come to mean independents, and for those of us more schooled in politics, pure independents. But Texiera believes there are numerous swing voters in all demographic groups, socio-economic levels and even among party labels. Some who might identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans might still be swing voters and to add a further twist some voters who actually identify as independents might really be hard partisans.
Texiera this defines swing voters as those open to persuasion. Using a scale of 1-100 on the scale of where a voter might be persuaded to back your candidate Texiera seems to indicate the cut-off would be somewhere around 65%. But the voters found in this group, in other words the middle 30% of persuadability are really America’s swing voters. But that does not mean these voters are evenly distributed and thus composed of only independents or moderates. Using data from a study by William Mayer, Texiera cites that swing voters are far more randomly distributed. Mayer found that swing voters are least likely to be found among strong partisans (12%), more so among independent leaners (27%), soft partisans (28%) and pure independents (40%).
Yet for campaigns this does not mean they should go solely for the pure independent vote. Keeping in mind only 13% of the general electorate are pure independents and far more identify as hard partisans there are more overall swing voters among hard partisans than pure independents. Roughly 28% of swing voters are found among a likely group, independent leaners and a whopping 42% of swing voters are found among soft partisans.
Texiera’s analysis has its merits. Far more voters would be open to persuasion than one would initially think and they could be brought to support a candidate’s party by the simplest of messages or acts. But while Texeria does not give a clear cut-off about where on a persuadability index a swing voter is campaigns have to. In tight races with resources stretched thin campaigns have to prioritize. That is why the base has always been targeted first by campaigns, they are easiest and cheapest to incentivize to vote. But swing voters on the other hand, if distributed as theorized by Texiera are a different story and they could complicate future candidate’s campaign plans and themes. It also suggests that perhaps America is not as polarized as we all think. Or simply perhaps that both parties stink at moving persuadable voters over to their side by election day.
Texiera’s theory thought has its limitations however. First-off, Texiera’s theory (admittedly backed up by Mayer’s research) suggesting that the swing vote is more prevalent than initially thought is not backed up by election trends. For example minus the 2010 election women have consistently voted Democratic. Yet white women have not voted for a Democratic president since 1964. Moving beyond a gender preference we can look at the habits of say Latinos and African-Americans. Only 10% of African-Americans backed Bush in 2004, a GOP high-water mark not seen since Reagan. Yet if we go with Texiera’s theory than most swing voters in this category went for Kerry. Likewise in 2008 Latino men and women went for Obama by over 70%. So while there may be swing voters among these groups they are either vastly outnumbered by their partisan counter-parts or Texiera’s theory about swing voters being evenly distributed is wrong.
Secondly, what defines a swing voter is fairly fluid in Texiera’s analysis. He seems to define it on their persuadability but short of a massive amount of legwork is there really any way to know what voters persuadbility level is. How voters decide to vote is incredibly complex, as much psychological and sociological as it is political. So leaving the definition of swing voter on their persuadability level is dubious. Especially when you consider that campaigns do not have the luxury of figuring this out with limited resources, time and staff.
Lastly, Texiera’s argument conveniently leaves out the data pointing against his theory such as the majority of states already voting one way n presidential elections, the NES data showing split ticket voting at any level vanishing and the numbers of safe Congressional Districts and Senate seats. All three of these points are but a few of many that lead to the fact there may not really be that many swing voters in the country, even as 39%-40% of Gallup respondents identify as independent on tracking surveys. Instead, the country is as polarized as ever. For swing voters this means they may truly be few in number but under the right circumstances they can swing elections.