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
Charlie Cook
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Charlie Cook
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.

What We're Following See More »
DACA VOTE TO COME
Dems Agree to Take McConnell’s Deal
23 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he's accepting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's offer to hold an immigration vote at a later date, "clearing the way for passage of a bill to reopen the federal government" today. "McConnell early Monday promised to take up an immigration bill that would protect an estimated 800,000 Dreamers from deportation, under an open amendment process, if Democrats would agree to end the government shutdown."

Source:
IN EXCHANGE FOR FUNDING VOTE TODAY
McConnell Promises Vote on Immigration
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday promised to take up an immigration bill protecting an estimated 800,000 Dreamers from deportation and allow an open amendment process if Democrats agree to reopen the government." He may need up to a dozen Democratic votes.

Source:
WILL ALERT OVER 600,000 AMERICANS
Twitter to Inform Targets of Russia Propaganda
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Twitter is notifying 677,775 U.S. users "who followed, retweeted, or liked tweets from accounts of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-linked troll farm." The social media company has so far identified 50,258 Russian-linked bot accounts that tweeted around the election. According to analysis, the hashtag #SchumerShutdown has become the top trending hashtag promoted by Russian bots on Twitter in the past 48 hours. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, found that the accounts have used the hashtag more than 700 times. (Politico)

Source:
PENCE SPEEDS UP CLOCK
U.S. Embassy to Enter Jerusalem Before End of 2018
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The updated timetable, which Pence announced, represents an acceleration of plans to formalize their recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. "'By finally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction — and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,' he added. Israeli Arab lawmakers staged a walk out during Pence's address at the beginning of his speech, while Palestinian officials snubbed Pence’s visit to parliament. Netenyahu described the U.S.-Israel relationship as a 'remarkable alliance' which has 'never been stronger.'"

Source:
CALLS FOR ‘NO CRS”
Trump Floats Support for Nuclear Option in Senate
14 hours ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login