The Rise of the Swing Voter

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Writing for the Washington Post, pollster Mark Penn argues that the nation isn’t rigidly divided and, in fact, swing voters are more numerous and important than ever.

These voters are untethered to either political party. While it’s become conventional wisdom to say that voters’ minds are firmly made up, and that certain candidates can or cannot win, it’s just not true. The growing bloc of swing voters takes a hard look at candidates much later in the process, and they adjust and shift as they gather information. They may seem like wallflowers in the political process right now, but they are the ones a successful campaign eventually needs to cross the finish line.

Penn is correct. And yet both parties seem to be more interested in mobilizing their base. Problem is, neither political party actually has a broad, unified base. Instead, the parties are coalitions of many bases with many different interests and goals. When a party “plays to its base� it’s really just playing to one or two specific special interests while ignoring or only mildly acknowledging other interests within the party’s coalition.

This strategy can work if one group within the coalition is particularly large and active (as are the social conservatives). But it can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. For example, the only reason social conservatives are a unified Republican force is because Democrats played to the interests of social liberals for far too long and lost the portion of their coalition that was made up of social conservatives. People who once would have eagerly voted Democrat because of economic reasons now vote Republican because the Democrats, in an effort to mobilize their so-called base, disinvested themselves from their socially conservative allies.

Now Republicans risk making the same mistake. Playing to the social conservative base is slowly alienating the libertarian and fiscal conservative aspects of the Republican coalition. These traditional Republicans may not become Democrats, but it’s likely they will become swing voters and seriously consider any Democrat who offers up a message more in-tune with their beliefs.

In many ways, we’re all potential swing voters. With only two parties to choose from, we can’t possibly find all our interests covered in one platform. We vote for the party that best represents our own interests. But if that party starts dismissing us and turns instead to another portion of the party’s coalition, most of us are going to start considering voting for the other party. This rise of swing voters that Penn writes about is almost certainly due to the fact that both parties have simultaneously narrowed their focus. Many of us no longer feel represented by either party and will thus cast our votes based on the specific positions of each candidate.

The more voters willing to swing their votes, the more both parties will have to take note and take action. Democracy might be slow and frustrating, but it does work. And the rise of swing voters is certainly democracy in action.

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