Why Swing Voters Don’t Matter

By Michael Baker

Here’s how most people think about winning a presidential election in our two-party system:

Forty percent of voters will always vote for a Democrat (these numbers are purely illustrative).  Forty percent will always vote for a Republican.  The other twenty percent – the swing voters – are who we all really care about, and it’s up to the candidates to sway that faction, particularly in the swing states.  So swing voters in swing states are what campaigning in America is all about, right?

That school of thought makes perfect sense, but I believe that it’s dead wrong for two reasons.  First, because it’s based on an incorrect presumption – the presumption that all the people who say they’re undecided actually are.  Second, because it ignores the most important number in campaign politics – voter turnout.

Here’s how I think things really works:

The overwhelming majority of Americans are going to vote Republican or Democrat and it is extremely unlikely that they can be swayed.  The breakdown in swing states is probably something like forty-eight percent leaning Democrat and forty-eight percent leaning Republican, with four percent genuinely undecided and somewhat likely to vote for a third-party candidate.  That four percent doesn’t matter; to the extent that their votes can be won they’re more effort than they’re worth.

So if both major party candidates are basically tied at forty-eight percent and the other four percent is irrelevant or in love with Ralph Nader, then how do we pick a winner?  That’s where voter turnout comes in.  When candidates campaign in swing states they’re not trying to convince undecided voters to vote for them, they’re trying to convince their forty-eight percent to show up and vote.  You don’t win the election by getting people to like you more than the other guy.  You win the election by getting the people who already like you more than the other guy to go to the polls.  So swing voters are sort of a myth, like Sasquatch or Dane Cook fans.  What winning an election is really all about is firing up your base, getting them passionate about filling out a ballot.

The best evidence of this is the 2004 Presidential Election.  In 2004, W won the popular vote and the election with an approval rating of less than fifty percent.  How did he do that?  Maybe it’s just because people disliked John Kerry more than they disliked Bush, so they held their nose and voted for an unpopular President.  Maybe, but a look at Bush’s campaign strategy in 2004 tells a different story.  Bush’s campaign team understood how elections really work, and they decided to make the election about issues that would get people in their conservative base fired up.  As the nation suffered from election fever the Prez voiced his support for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, a proposal that ultimately went nowhere and that he never really talked about again after the election.  The Bush campaign also hammered away at Kerry’s stance on abortion, which is always a hot button, especially for Bush’s conservative supporters.  It was a smart strategy, and it worked.

I’m curious to see how our current presidential candidates go about lighting a fire under their respective bases.  So far it’s been Bain Capital and the economy.  Appropriately, the cure for our current case of election fever may still be healthcare.