Both Sides Now

Should candidates chase their base or woo swing voters? Yes.

Donald Trump, second from left, makes a point as Marco Rubio, left, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, right, listen during the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.
AP Photo/Morry Gash
Dec. 4, 2015, 5 a.m.

An age-old ar­gu­ment among polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives is the re­l­at­ive im­port­ance of per­sua­sion versus turnout. One group makes the case that scarce cam­paign re­sources should go to­ward tar­get­ing the mal­le­able voters in the middle, those with loose if any par­tis­an ties, and driv­ing them in the de­sired dir­ec­tion. The oth­er group ar­gues that truly swing voters are very few, and so it’s a bet­ter use of time and money to ex­cite voters who can be coun­ted on for sup­port, if only they’ll go to the polls.

Which can­did­ate Re­pub­lic­ans de­cide to nom­in­ate for pres­id­ent next year could well turn on that ba­sic ques­tion. As­sum­ing the GOP, through its primar­ies and caucuses, doesn’t roll the dice on a pure out­sider like Don­ald Trump, they’ll choose either a can­did­ate whose ap­peal reaches in­to the middle, such as (in al­pha­bet­ic­al or­der, lest any­one be of­fen­ded) Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Marco Ru­bio, or one de­signed to max­im­ize sup­port in the party’s con­ser­vat­ive base, like Ted Cruz, Mike Hucka­bee, or Rick San­tor­um. I sup­pose you could count both neurosur­geon Ben Car­son and busi­ness­wo­man Carly Fior­ina as out­siders and, on most is­sues, as con­ser­vat­ives.

Exit polls in 2012 showed that 92 per­cent of self-de­scribed Demo­crats voted for Pres­id­ent Obama; the same per­cent­age voted for the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for the House. On the oth­er side, 93 per­cent of self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans cast their bal­lots for Mitt Rom­ney and 94 per­cent for their dis­trict’s GOP House can­did­ate.

This makes sense when you con­sider that the Demo­crats most likely to vote for a Re­pub­lic­an were con­ser­vat­ives and mod­er­ates—vir­tu­ally ex­tinct and in­creas­ingly rare, re­spect­ively. So, too, among Re­pub­lic­an voters. The ones most likely to de­fect to a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate were lib­er­als, who are just about gone, and the ever-few­er mod­er­ates.

We now see more party co­he­sion; each party is pretty much sor­ted out—lib­er­als to one side, con­ser­vat­ives to the oth­er. That trans­lates in­to more straight-party vot­ing, up and down the bal­lot, and less tick­et-split­ting than ever be­fore. It also leaves the mod­er­ates in both parties in­creas­ingly out­numbered and dis­en­fran­chised, without much say in se­lect­ing nom­in­ees.

This is a pro­cess that has ac­cel­er­ated stead­ily since Pres­id­ent John­son’s mid-1960s vic­tor­ies on civil rights laws ushered in Richard Nix­on’s South­ern strategy in 1968. Party lines held firm even in 1992, with its ex­traordin­ary three-way con­test between Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush, Arkan­sas Gov. Bill Clin­ton, and busi­ness­man H. Ross Perot, when 73 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans voted for Bush and 77 per­cent of Demo­crats went for Clin­ton. Four years later, Clin­ton drew 84 per­cent of the Demo­crat­ic vote, while Bob Dole took 80 per­cent of the Re­pub­lic­ans.

And so on. In the 2000 elec­tion, that cliff­hanger, Al Gore car­ried 86 per­cent of the vote from Demo­crats, and George W. Bush took a re­mark­able 90 per­cent of the votes cast by self-de­scribed Re­pub­lic­ans. Four years later, Bush fared even bet­ter in his reelec­tion bid, pulling 93 per­cent of the Re­pub­lic­an vote, while John Kerry racked up 89 per­cent among Demo­crats. In 2008, Barack Obama and John Mc­Cain car­ried 89 per­cent and 90 per­cent, re­spect­ively, of their par­tis­ans. Par­tis­an voters are pre­dict­able.

So, where are the stor­ied in­de­pend­ents, who seem to hold the na­tion’s polit­ic­al bal­ance in their grasp? Ac­cord­ing to exit polls in the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the pro­por­tion of voters call­ing them­selves in­de­pend­ents ranged between 26 per­cent (in 1996 and 2004) and 29 per­cent (in 2008 and 2012).

But, even most of these pro­fessed in­de­pend­ents don’t ac­tu­ally be­have, well, in­de­pend­ently. The Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Elec­tion Stud­ies are a series of na­tion­al sur­veys im­me­di­ately be­fore and after pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, led by polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists at the Uni­versity of Michigan and Stan­ford Uni­versity. In 2012, it found that 87 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents who, when pushed, con­ceded they feel closer to the Demo­crat­ic Party wound up vot­ing for Obama. The same per­cent­age of in­de­pend­ents who ad­mit­ted a soft spot for Re­pub­lic­ans went for Rom­ney. In 2008, Obama’s hope-and-change cam­paign drew a whop­ping 91 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents, while Mc­Cain won 82 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents who leaned Re­pub­lic­an. Simply put, many of the people who self-identi­fy as polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ents are, for elect­or­al pur­poses, par­tis­ans. They vote al­most as pre­dict­ably as Amer­ic­ans who simply la­bel them­selves as a Demo­crat or a Re­pub­lic­an.

True in­de­pend­ents, who don’t lean to­ward either party, made up only 5 per­cent of the 2012 elect­or­ate, ac­cord­ing to the ANES sur­vey. (They pre­ferred Rom­ney over Obama, 54 per­cent to 46 per­cent.) In 2008, these hard in­de­pend­ents ac­coun­ted for 6.5 per­cent of the elect­or­ate (break­ing for Obama, 55 per­cent to 45 per­cent), and for 5.5 per­cent in 2004 (sid­ing with Kerry, 56 per­cent to 44 per­cent). Note that in all three elec­tions, more in­de­pend­ents voted against the party that held the White House—and in two of the three, in fa­vor of the can­did­ate who lost.

All of which serves to re­mind us that pre­cisely who goes to the polls—the turnout of par­tis­ans and of par­tis­an-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents—can de­cide an elec­tion.

Here’s the truth: In most polit­ic­al cir­cum­stances, neither side of the ar­gu­ment is com­pletely cor­rect. Polit­ic­al parties must walk and chew gum at the same time. They need to hold and mo­tiv­ate their base while try­ing to per­suade those few voters in the middle who are truly up for grabs. Par­tis­ans mat­ter, and swing voters do, too.

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