Obama’s bar fight: Politics is about winning over the swing voters and Obama ain’t doing it


President Obama is in the middle of a bar fight that he may lose. The NY Times reports that only 31% of the swing voters this year support him, this compares to 52% in 2008. (Of course the good news is no one likes the GOP and what they have to offer!) So why is this a bar fight?

E.E. Schattschneider, one of the most astute political scientists in last 50 years drew a comparison between politics, swing voters, and bar fights in his 1960 The Semisovereign People. He noted that bar fights are won or lost depending on who the audience supports. The same is true in politics. In an era when no political party commands a majority, the battle for victory resides in capturing the swing voter. Politics is thus about moving marginals (swing voters). Politics is a bar fight.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats of course will do their best to mobilize their political bases in a effort to win an election. But that is generally not enough. According to a recent Rasmussen reports poll, 35.4% of the American adult population considers themselves to be Republican while 32.7% consider themselves to be Democrats.

These numbers reflect a historic switch in the post WW II era were Democratic affiliation was much greater than for Republicans. Recent Gallup surveys place the ranks of Democrats at 43%, the GOP at 40%. This survey seems more consistent with the historic slight edge given to the Democrats. But both surveys highlight the same point–neither party commands 50% of more of the electorate. For Rasmussen, 32% report no or other for party affiliation, for Gallup, it is 17%.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats command a majority of the population as their base. They therefore cannot win elections as a rule simply by mobilizing their base. Instead they have to win over some swing voters to their side. Real swing voters are those who do shift sides and preferences in voting, as opposed to voters who claim no party affiliation but nonetheless still vote consistently for one party or another.

The battle for control of much of American politics, especially at the presidential level, is an effort to capture swing voters to support you. As discussed earlier presidential politics revolves around swing states. It is also true that in many state and local races the demographics and district lines for offices make few seats uncompetitive. Some estimates are that in Congress at best only about 15% or so of seats are truly competitive. But in many races, and at the presidential level, the battle is to move swing voters in a few swing states. Who are these swing voters?

Efforts to define swing voters are often elusive. In his The Swing Voter in American Politics, William G Meyer notes that there is no one single swing voter. Instead, there a clusters of several types. There are the suburban soccer moms, many formerly Republican but who have left the party (while their husbands have not) because of its stand on many issues. These women care about family issues such as health insurance and education and are more moderate on issues such as abortion and gay rights. There also are the NASCAR dads who fit into this category. One can also locate young people. The list of groups is broad but finite.

In many cases the swing voters are not only politically not partisan but moderate in their political views. In some cases they are highly educated; often they are not always highly motivated to vote and therefore not always reliable or cannot be counted on to show up. In some cases these voters know about the issues, and they may get their political information from tradition or non-traditional sources. In other cases, they are not politically engaged and not well informed about the issues.

The difficult task for candidates going after swing voters is twofold. First, identifying the demographic they wish to reach given their issues, and second, deciding whether it is better to try to mobilize or demobilize them. If you demobilize them they will not vote for the opposition. That is good. Seeking to mobilize them to support you is good, but it may be costly to reach them. Also, they may represent niche demographics and therefore hard to reach or locate. Moreover, one you reach them you then have to give them reason to vote. Thus swing voters present two troubles: How to locate and reach them and then get them to vote for you. These are separate problems but often intertwined.

Who are the most important swing voters in American politics? The simple answer is that it depends on the election. However, some arguments can be made that the soccer mom is still one of the most important swing voters. While Democrats do enjoy a gender gap advantage in terms of getting a greater percentage of women as opposed to men to vote for them in recent elections, this may be due to the fact that Democrats have been more successful in reaching out to them as the Republican Party has moved in a more conservative direction. Critical to presidential success in recent elections has been to look at where the female voters go–if they break in large numbers for the Democrats then it is more likely the Democratic candidate wins.

However, the argument can also be made that other swing voters, include young people under 30, are important. These are individuals whose turnout is mercurial and not dependable. If the overall turnout rates in America for voting in national elections is approximately 60%, turnout for those under 30 is perhaps 20 or more points lower. Barack Obama was very successful in appealing to them and having them turnout to vote, although again some polls suggest that their turnout in 2008 was not unusually larger.

Finally, swing voters might also be potentially include individuals whose politics may not line up neatly with the two major parties. There are pro-choice and pro-gay-rights voters who nonetheless are fiscally conservative. These individuals face dilemmas in partisan voting and may be swing voters.

Whatever the final composition of swing voters, it is simply enough to say that it is a bar fight to win them over. When we think of a presidential election, one might be able to say that the real battle is to win over swing voters in swing suburbs in swing states. This is actually a pretty small battleground.