Swing Is Still King At the Polls

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By Mark J. Penn
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

We hear it every day: America is divided into two camps -- red and blue -- and the key to elections is just energizing the base.

But in fact, while the base is critical, it's not the whole picture. Behind all the rhetoric, the reality is that swing is still king. The two or three or 10 voters who are the quietest in focus groups, who never demonstrate and who belong to no political party, will be the ones who determine the political course of America.

This is less true in Washington, where everyone has to choose sides to survive, but outside the Beltway, trends show that voters are increasingly open and flexible, not rigid. They are looking at candidates' records and visions, not their party affiliation.

In the past 50 years independents have grown from one-quarter to one-third of the electorate, according to Gallup polls. In California, the number of independent voters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005. The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party.

According to the American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, the number of split-ticket voters in the electorate -- meaning people who vote for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress, or vice versa -- has gone up 42 percent since 1952. That shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.

When asked, Americans have a characteristic swagger and express that they definitely will or will not vote for candidates and parties. In 1995, 65 percent of voters said they would never vote for Bill Clinton. One year later they reelected him in a landslide.

Recent polls show that rather than a static electorate, we have a dynamically changing one. Based on the polls six months ago, journalists were declaring Republican hegemony. Today, Democrats have the widest margin in two decades on the generic congressional vote.

Was there a sudden surge in the number of hard-core Democrats answering surveys, or was it just a matter of America's swing voters deciding that President Bush is failing on the economy, the war and, recently, national security, by compromising the ports? Clearly, there is a massive swing electorate out there that is receiving more information from more sources than ever before -- and acting on it.

According to CNN exit polls, in the presidential elections of 1996, 2000 and 2004, one-fifth to one-third of voters made up their minds in the last month before the vote. Indeed, in the summer of 2004, voters swung from an eight-point lead for John Kerry to a 13-point lead for Bush, and in the end gave Bush a victory by only three points.

We can expect the same variability in the 2006 and 2008 elections. In a Gallup poll from last August, 83 percent of Americans said either that they hadn't seriously considered who they'll support or that they weren't really paying much attention. Asked in January whether they would vote for a Republican or Democrat for president in 2008, 34 percent of registered voters said "neither" or that they could go either way.

And an analysis of the last presidential election shows that while turnout was indeed higher, it was higher on both sides, canceling out the impact of the appeals to the two bases. Middle-aged women and Hispanic voters were the key voting blocs that made the difference, swinging the vote from Kerry to Bush. In fact, in 2004 women made up 54 percent of the U.S. electorate, the highest percentage in history. Their interest in and impact on politics has been increasing.

Choosing between appealing to the base and the swing vote is, as President Bill Clinton would say, a "false choice." His signature policies -- family and medical leave, 100,000 cops, middle-class tax cuts, a strong national defense, and a balanced budget -- drew support from both Democratic die-hards and voters in the vitalcenter.

In 1996 we identified soccer moms as the critical swing voters. Today they remain at the center of the swing vote, but they're a decade older and their kids are going off to college. Now they get their information from the Internet as well as TV, radio and print media, making them the most informed swing voters in history. And while they had little time when their kids were 6 and 8, many of those boomers are now getting some extra time to think about what's going on in America and the world.

These voters are untethered to either political party. While it's become conventional wisdom to say that voters' minds are firmly made up, and that certain candidates can or cannot win, it's just not true. The growing bloc of swing voters takes a hard look at candidates much later in the process, and they adjust and shift as they gather information. They may seem like wallflowers in the political process right now, but they are the ones a successful campaign eventually needs to cross the finish line.

The writer heads a polling firm that conducted surveys for President Bill Clinton in 1996. He is also chief executive of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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