The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie usually writes pretty good stuff, but here he makes a common error. Bouie cites Alan Abramowitz claims there’s really no such thing as an independent voter, that they’re mostly just “soft partisans” who consider themselves independents but consistently vote for the same party. Putting too much emphasis on the hypothetical “independent voter” is a common error of much punditry, so a corrective to that error is welcome. But unfortunately Bouie goes on to make a different error, one often made by pundits further from the center, either to the left or the right:
If independents are already firm in their preferences, then the goal isn’t to win them from the other side; after all, Republican independents will vote for Republicans, and Democratic independents will vote for Democrats. Rather, the goal is to boost turnout among friendly independents, while keeping the other side from doing the same. In other words, to “win” independents, Obama needs to work to energize his Democratic base. If this sounds like the usual strategy for winning presidential elections, that’s because it is.
That’s actually not the usual strategy for winning elections. The strategy for winning elections is to figure out your electorate and how you get to a bit over 50% of the vote. To do that you figure out who you have in the bag, who will vote for you no matter what. You figure out who won’t vote for you under any circumstances (including those who won’t vote). You figure out who may or may not vote but if you can get them out will probably vote for you. And you figure out who is truly up for grabs with no preference, who leans toward you but could be pulled away by the opposition, and who’s leaning toward the opposition but could pulled over to supporting your candidate.
What campaigns do NOT do is design and pursue a strategy based on winning the votes of “independent voters,” because any decent electoral strategist knows that how people label themselves is less important than their voting history, their beliefs, their demographic characteristics, and how they can be expected to respond to information about the candidates presented to them during the campaign.
Winning, therefore, requires a campaign to rally the candidate’s partisan base, holding the voters who could swing away from them, and attracting voters who could swing from truly undecided or from supporting the opponent. It’s true that many who identify themselves as independents aren’t swing voters; they almost always vote for one or the other party. It’s also often the case that more swing voters identify themselves as independents than as Republicans or Democrats. But for Bouie’s strategy to work, the partisans would have to be always equally reliable in voting for a candidate from their party and variable only in their rates of participation. Nobody doubts that participation is variable from election to election, candidate to candidate. But what Bouie and others overlook is that the choices of partisans are variable as well.
To demonstrate the instability of partisans and swing voters, look at Tennessee in the last two presidential elections. Tennessee wasn’t contested in either election, so changes in performance are largely the result of local trends & the national campaign but without much influence of paid advertising or field organizing under the direction of the presidential campaigns. McCain got 56.85% of the vote, almost identical to Bush’s 56.80% in 2004. From 2004 to 2008 the share of voters in exit polls who identified themselves as Democrats–32%–was unchanged. Obama improved on Kerry’s margins among self-identified liberals and held steady among conservatives. But Obama ran almost a full point behind Kerry’s percentage of the vote in Tennessee.
What explains the difference (especially when Obama was running almost five points better than Kerry nationally)? A few figures from the exit polling stand out: Kerry won self-identified moderates by 17 points but Obama won them by only 1, Kerry lost self-identified independents by 17 but Obama lost them by 21, and Kerry got 90% among self-identified Democrats, while Obama got only 86%.
Among the conclusions to draw from these figures is that, despite the beliefs of Bouie and many others on both the left and the right that winning elections is all about getting out your own base, there’s often enough shifting in the middle of the electorate and among each party’s own partisans that campaigns do have to appeal to swing voters, and in a close election, those swing voters matter a lot. Swing voters include some self-identified partisans (like the 5% of Tennessee Republicans and 15% of New York and Connecticut Republicans who voted for Obama or the 28% of West Virginia Democrats who voted for McCain) and some people who seem to be voting in opposition to their stated ideology (like the 25% of self-identified Tennessee liberals who voted for Bush and the 17% of conservatives who voted for Kerry). And, it’s especially important to note, they’re not the same people from election to election.
It’s hard not to conclude that being black cost Obama some votes among white Democrats in Tennessee and elsewhere. It also probably gained him some votes among African-Americans; Kerry received 88% of the black vote, Obama 95%. Some of the gain for Obama came from growing the black vote, almost entirely with Obama voters. But there were probably some black Republicans and independents who voted for Obama, making them, in the context of the presidential election, swing voters.
But those white Democratic McCain voters and the black Republican Obama voters, what did they do elsewhere on the ballot? Some of them were probably swing voters for other partisan races and criss-crossed their way down the ballot. But many probably reverted to their partisan ways for Senate, Congress and state and local offices. Coordinated campaigns often face the problem of dealing with voters who one candidate has identified as her supporters but who, if you prod them to vote, will probably vote against some or all of the other Democrats on the ballot.
When a presidential campaign designs a path to victory, they identify, through polling and research, the persuadable voters and how to persuade them. They think of those people as swing voters. Whether those voters call themselves independents isn’t as important. But just because some pundits think independent voters are more independent than they are, campaigns still have to appeal to swing voters to win an election.