Mainstream Democratic campaign consultants and pollsters typically tell candidates they should “move to the right” and campaign to the “center” with positions that are “between” the “left” and the “right.” This is the way, they say, to “attract swing voters” who would be “scared off” by a candidate who takes populist positions that favor the interests of the 99 percent over the interests of the 1 percent.
Polling and experience show that exactly the opposite might be true.
This week Lynn Vavrek writes at the New York Times Upshot blog, in “The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections“:
There just aren’t that many swing voters. … Ultimately voters tend to come home to their favored party. There are relatively few voters who cross back and forth between the parties during a campaign or even between elections.
Looking at the Democrat loss in the 2010 election, this is the key:
The results clearly show that voters in 2010 did not abandon the Democrats for the other side, but they did forsake the party in another important way: Many stayed home.
Again: In 2010 “swing” voters did not “shift” toward Republicans. What happened was that Democrats stayed home.
2011 Pew Poll: Independents Aren’t ‘Centrists’
Who are the “independent” voters? In 2011 The Washington Post’s “The Fix” looked at a Pew Research Center poll. In the post, “The misunderstood independent,” Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza wrote (emphasis added)
In politics, it’s often tempting to put independents somewhere in the middle of Republicans and Democrats, politically. They identify somewhere in between the two, so they must be moderates, right?
A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests that’s not so true anymore. Independents, in fact, are a fast-growing and increasingly diverse group that both parties are going to need to study and understand in the years ahead.
. . . Pew identifies three different kinds of independents. Libertarians and Disaffecteds are 21 percent of registered voters and lean towards Republicans; Post-Moderns are 14 percent and lean towards Democrats.
A look at their views on issues shows those three groups can often be among the most extreme on a given topic.
Disaffecteds, for example, believe in helping the needy more than most Democrats. Libertarians side with business more than even the solidly Republican Staunch Conservatives. And Post-Moderns accept homosexuality more than most Democrats. The three independents groups are also less religious, on the whole, than either Republicans or most Democrats.
In other words, polling shows that many “independents” are to the left of Democrats and many others are to the right of Republicans. They are not “in the middle” or “between” but rather are more likely to stay home and not vote for candidates who move “to the middle.” Those independents to the right of Republicans are not going to vote for Democrats no matter how far “to the right” the Democratic candidate goes.
2010 PPP Poll: The Independents Who Stayed Home
In 2010 Greg Sargent wrote at the Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, “Progressives and centrists battle over meaning of indy vote” (emphasis added):
Independents are not a monolith, and what really happened is that indys who backed Obama in 2008 stayed home, because they were unsatisfied with Obama’s half-baked reform agenda, while McCain-supporting indys turned out in big numbers.
. . . The key finding: PPP asked independents who did vote in 2010 who they had supported in 2008. The results: Fifty one percent of independents who voted this time supported McCain last time, versus only 42 percent who backed Obama last time. In 2008, Obama won indies by eight percent.
That means the complexion of indies who turned out this time is far different from last time around, argues Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. His case: Dem-leaning indys stayed home this time while GOP-leaning ones came out — proof, he insists, that the Dems’ primary problem is they failed to inspire indys who are inclined to support them.
“The dumbest thing Democrats could do right now is listen to those like Third Way who urge Democrats to repeat their mistake by caving to Republicans and corporations instead of fighting boldly for popular progressive reforms and reminding Americans why they were inspired in 2008,” Green says.
March Florida Special Election
In the March special election in Florida’s 13th District, the Republican candidate strongly embraced the values of “the base” while the Democratic candidate took “centrist” positions, even embracing austerity and cuts to Social Security – in Florida. In Did Dems Have A Reason To Show Up And Vote In Florida House Race? I wrote about what happened, but in summary, R’s voted and Dems stayed home.
The Republican won by about 3,400 votes out of about 183,000 votes cast. Turnout was 58 percent in precincts Romney won in 2012, and 48.5 percent in precincts Obama won in 2012. There were 49,000 fewer people who voted in this election than in the 2010 general mid-term election (down 21 percent), and 158,500 fewer than in the 2012 Presidential (down 46 percent). So it was the failure to get Democratic voters to show up that lost them the election.
The Republicans ran “the furthest right a GOP candidate had run in the area” in 60 years. Meanwhile the Democrat tried to “reach across the aisle” to bring in “centrist” and “moderate” voters, and emphasized “cutting wasteful government spending” and “introducing performance metrics to hold government accountable for waste and abuse and creating the right fiscal environment for businesses to create jobs.”
Again, the Republican campaigned to the right, the Democrat campaigned “in the middle.” The result: Republicans showed up to vote, Democrats stayed home.
What The Heck Do “Centrist” And “The Middle” Even Mean?
Think about the words we use to describe voters and policy positions. “Left,” “right,” “between,” “center” and “swing” force the brain to visualize policy positions as endpoints on a straight line. The visualization forces people to imagine a “centrist” that is someone who holds positions that are somewhere “in the middle” and “between” the policy positions that are these endpoints. There is a bulk of voters who are imagined to “swing” from the positions on these endpoints, who are looking for politicians who don’t go “too far” in any policy direction. Politicians can “attract” these “swing” voters by taking positions that are “between” the endpoints.
But polling and experience tell us:
1) There are very few actual “independent voters.” Instead there are lots of voters who agree with the left or agree with the right, but are further to the left or right and so do not register as Democrats or Republicans.
2) There is no “swing voter” block “between” the parties. There are different groups of voters who decide to vote or stay home. No conservative “independent” who is to the right of the Republican party will vote for any Democrat, no matter how far right they move. All that moving to the right accomplishes is to cause many Democratic “base” voters to hold their noses if they do vote, and possibly just stay away from the polls.
Karl Rove got this. He understood that you can get the right-wing voters roused up to come to the polls by moving Republican politicians to the right. Instead of “moving to the center” he got Bush and the Republicans to stand up for conservative principles and refuse to compromise, and the result was that more of “the base” enthusiastically showed up at the polls.
Conclusion: You Have To Deliver For And Campaign To Your Base Or They Don’t Show Up
Here is what is very important to understand about the “swing” vote: Few voters “switch.” That is the wrong lesson. There are not voters who “swing,” there are left voters and right voters who either show up and vote or do not show up and vote.
The lesson to learn: You have to deliver for and campaign to YOUR “base” voters or they don’t show up and vote for you. If Democrats don’t give regular, working people –- the Democratic base -– a reason to vote, then many of them won’t.
To learn what the American voter wants, please visit Populist Majority, Exposing the gulf between American opinion and conventional wisdom.
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary