When people talk about “swing voters” or “key voters” in an election year, it’s smart to turn on the BS detector. Beware immediately anyone who acts as though “winning” a given demographic group is all-important: a vote is a vote, and running up big margins or minimizing big losses is absolutely as valuable as doing better than expected in a closely competitive category.
A much better definition of “swing” or “key” voters is those in a group that is flexible in its political preferences. The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter provides a good demonstration of how to identify such voters in an analysis of white voters and the gender, education and religious differentiators that affect their attitudes towards Donald J. Trump. This last factor is often missed even by those who understand how much conservative evangelicals have flocked to the great orange heathen’s banner:
Mike Podhorzer, AFL-CIO’s political director, suggests that if we want to have a better understanding of white, non-college educated voters, we need to stop lumping them into one, catch-all category. What really distinguishes a Trump-supporting white voter from one who doesn’t isn’t education or even gender, it’s whether or not that voter is evangelical.
Using a data set from Public Religion Research Institute, Podhorzer broke out white voters by gender, education and whether they identified as evangelical. The gap between white voters who approve and disapprove of Trump by gender was 25 points. By education (college versus non-college) it was about the same at 26 percent. But the gap in perceptions of the president between white voters who are evangelical and those who aren’t was a whopping 60 percent!
So right off the bat you can understand that white evangelical voters are not likely to abandon Trump or his party no matter what they do. And that distinction is important across other demographic lines:
[A]mong white evangelicals, college-educated men and non-college educated men give Trump equally impressive job approval ratings (78 percent and 80 percent respectively). But, among white men who aren’t evangelical, the education gap is significant. Those without a college degree give Trump a 52 percent job approval rating, while just 40 percent of those with a college degree approve of the job he’s doing.
Meanwhile, among women, if you remove evangelicals, white women with and without a college degree have the same (very low) opinion of the president.
White evangelical women without a college degree give Trump a 68 percent job approval rating, while those with a degree give him a much lower, though still positive 51 percent approval rating. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval among white, non-evangelical women without a college degree is 35 percent, just five points higher than the 30 percent approval rating he gets from white, non-evangelical college-educated women.
Walter reaches a clear dual conclusion:
First, stop assuming that all white, non-college voters are core Trump supporters. Trump’s base is evangelical white voters, regardless of education level. Second, white non-evangelical, non-college women are the ultimate swing voters.
As it happens, that’s similar to the conclusion another acute, empirically-oriented analyst, Ron Brownstein, has reached identifying white non-college-educated women as a group Trump carried easily in 2016 and is in big danger of losing in 2018 and in 2020. Add in the religious factor, and you can separate even that relatively discrete demographic category into those who will likely stick with the GOP (evangelicals) and those who might not (non-evangelicals).
That religion can outweigh gender and class in political preferences will come as no surprise to those who live in religiously observant conservative communities, or in highly secular (or at least non-evangelical) areas where the religious posturings of conservative Republicans seem like behavior from a different, benighted era. But where gender, class and religious orientation pull in the same direction, as they might with non-evangelical white working-class women, big changes can happen fast.