vision 2020

Can Democrats Overthrow the Tyranny of Swing Voters?

The legendary swing voter: a sage or a schmo? Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

During my many years as a professional in the “centrist” or “moderate” wing of the Democratic Party (I was policy director for the Democratic Leadership Council for a good while), I was taught to have a healthy respect for swing voters. They obviously had a lot of electoral value in close contests, particularly back when they represented a much larger percentage of the electorate; winning one of them over in theory counted twice, since you were both adding a voter and deducting one from the opposing party’s column.

And while I recognized things I didn’t like about chronic swing voters — a certain smugness about their bogus superiority to us grubby partisans, and a strong tendency toward false equivalences between Ds and Rs to justify their independence — I tended to respect them for their efforts to identify positive features in both parties’ traditions and agendas, and to seek rationally to influence both in a constructive direction. I probably assumed swing voters were by and large well-informed and rational — the legendary median voters around whom our whole system of politics revolved.

It’s unclear how much of that attitude was an illusion then, back in the 1980s, 1990s, and early aughts. But it certainly doesn’t describe swing voters today. And Democrats need to take a good long look at them and decide if appealing to them is worth the price they demand in bad policies and politics.

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn shattered a lot of stereotypes in his analysis of swing voters heading toward 2020, whom he clearly believes will control the presidential outcome via their positioning in key Rust Belt battleground states:

Today’s America is so deeply polarized that it can be hard to imagine there are people who are really not sure whether they want to vote for President Trump or his Democratic rival.

But these “mythic,” “quasi-talismanic,” “unicorn” swing voters are very real, and there are enough of them to decide the next presidential election.

They are similar in holding ideologically inconsistent views, but they otherwise span all walks of life, based on an analysis of 569 respondents to recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College surveys in the six closest states carried by the president in the 2016 presidential election.

These voters represent 15 percent of the electorate in the battleground states, and they say there’s a chance they’ll vote for either Mr. Trump or the Democrat.

“Ideologically inconsistent views” means that swing voters don’t tend to have a very rational or carefully thought-out worldview from which they view politics. They like what they like and hate what they hate for idiosyncratic reasons that don’t often add up. But the bad news for Democrats is that a lot of what they hate is often central to progressive politics:

These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.

Over all, 40 percent describe themselves as conservative, compared with 16 percent who say they’re liberal. Forty percent are moderate.

Mr. Trump leads Ms. Warren, 49 percent to 27 percent, among this broadly defined group of persuadable voters, slightly improving on his margin over Mrs. Clinton.

Cohn goes on to explain that the two best-known segments of swing voters both have pretty strong antipathies to the hopes, dreams, and principles of the left and even center-left:

The white college-educated persuadable voters, in either the broad or narrow definition, have something in common: They may not love the president, but they are not sold on progressives.

They oppose single-payer health care, 60 percent to 37 percent, and oppose free college, 55 to 41.

They disapprove of the president, but only 32 percent disapprove of both his performance and his policies.

It gets even worse with white working-class swing voters:

The undecided white working-class voters often seem as if they would be quite receptive to Democrats based on their views on the issues. They support single-payer health care, for instance.

But they approve of the president’s performance by a comfortable 63-32 margin, and they are as about as conservative as Republicans on the cultural issues that divide today’s politics. By a margin of 84 percent to 9 percent, they say political correctness has gone too far. They say academics and journalists look down on people like them, and agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

So in appealing to these folks, Democrats are under pressure from one segment of swing voters to abandon progressive economic policies and from the other to abandon progressive commitments to equality for minorities and women and cultural progress generally. Some undoubtedly demand both, and are especially allergic to concepts like the Green New Deal, which strikes them as both socialistic and elitist.

And overwhelmingly, swing voters want Democrats to work with Republicans to get things done.

This last unreasonable demand of swing voters helps explain the otherwise almost inexplicable desire of many Democratic pols (e.g., Joe Biden) to pursue Republicans to the ends of the earth with hands outstretched in fellowship that are perpetually slapped away. Quite possibly the bipartisanship fetish among so many Democrats is not a matter of (a) actually believing in it or (b) believing Republicans are open to it, but rather of (c) recognizing that swing voters want it. These Democrats are much like the Republicans who keep insisting they haven’t a racist bone in their bodies not because they harbor illusions of securing the trust and votes of minority Americans but because they know suburban voters want to hear them say it.

So does this mean Democrats are condemned to a choice between losing elections and sacrificing much of their agenda — and their esprit de corps — to the great tepid idol of swing voters? Maybe not.

It’s instructive that Republicans — and particularly their leader Donald Trump — appear to have no great inhibitions about letting their freak flags fly and taking their chances with swing voters. In part that’s because they are adept at focusing their efforts on convincing swing voters that however savage and partisan they are it’s the Democrats who are the real crazies and obstructionists. It’s a sort of negative bipartisanship, which says, We’d love to work with the other party if they weren’t controlled by radicals and people who loathe you. Two parties can play that game; at this point Democrats don’t play it particularly well.

Another important strategic angle Democrats need to take more seriously is to identify smaller subcategories of swing voters who are not hostile to their values and make them committed voters and partisans. White working-class women, for example, are a better target than men of the same class and background. And as Cohn notes, there are minority swing voters who are alienated from the Democratic coalition — and their own communities, in many cases — but who are easier to reach than people who are bombarded with Fox News and other conservative or pro-Trump misinformation every minute of the day.

Ultimately, Trump and his Republicans have staked their hopes on the hypermobilization of their base coalition with confidence there are enough swing voters leaning in their direction to make a simplified — and amplified — message effective. It’s time to discard the old idea that pols must make a sharp and definitive choice between persuasion and mobilization, in part because persuadable voters need mobilizing, too, as Cohn observes:

There’s a common view in politics that campaigns can make a choice between turnout, in which candidates play to their base and try to mobilize new voters, and persuasion, in which they reach out to swing voters.

It turns out that many of the low-turnout voters are also the persuadable ones. They don’t have the clear, ideologically consistent views that make them a natural fit for either party, and so they are less likely to vote as well.

If they do vote, it will probably be for the party whose fundamental values they share, and that aggressively makes that connection at the right time. Democrats should lead, not follow, swing voters, and regain control of their own agendas and messaging from the tyranny of the uniformed and the undecided.

Can Democrats Overthrow the Tyranny of Swing Voters?