By Mike Koetting November 14, 2021
In the old days—back when there was ticket-splitting and public health and infrastructure were bipartisan issues—swing voters were generally conceived of as people whose political ideology was explicitly centrist and who would consider the circumstances of a particular election and make a calculated choice. I am not sure that’s a particularly illuminating description of today’s “swing voters”. Nevertheless, they remain as important as ever—maybe more important.
As we all know, the country is bitterly polarized and this polarization is not even from place to place. Some places are securely red and some resolutely blue. When it comes to Senate seats and electoral votes, there are not that many places likely to in fact “swing.” California and Mississippi aren’t going anywhere. Given the evenness in the split of givens (by our political architecture not the population), the small number of places that are fluid become exponentially more important, and within those places, the relatively small number of swing-voters will control the outcome.
Consequently, winning elections requires winning swing voters. This is hardly a newsflash. But it is much easier talked about than executed. The key problem is that the swing voters aren’t motivated by the same things as the base. If they were, they wouldn’t be swing voters. No one who believes the Big Lie is going to vote Democrat and no committed pro-choice advocate is going to vote Republican. People who vote for Obama in one election and Trump in the next see the world differently from people with specific ideologies.
I don’t have data for this—no polls, not even a focus group—but I think what drives the non-committed, is their sense of “social wellness.” They want to feel that society is working reasonably well and meeting their broader needs. In my conception, this broad, amorphous sense of “social wellness” is a big deal for these voters since they really don’t have any abiding policy markers.
In Virginia, and probably more broadly, these volatile voters seem to have three things weighing on them, Covid, the quest for social justice and their perception of government functionality. These are reasonable things to be concerned about, but, unfortunately, it seems these voters are reacting more to the symptoms than the causes.
With regard to Covid, the evidence is unarguable that, if you get vaccinated, you are not likely to die from it. And, despite all the grumbling, as the vaccine mandates take hold, the percentage of people vaccinated continues to climb, including children. Moreover, with the new drugs coming on the market, it seems even if you get pretty sick, the odds are good you can be kept out of the hospital. In short, plenty of reason to be optimistic that we are on our way out of the woods.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way. The news is dominated by fights over mandates, places where Covid seems more out of control. A lot of fear manifested. If you’re not paying attention, it is easy to see how you’d be left with a sense that it’s never going away and we’ll be fighting over keeping schools open forever—or at least through next September, which to many parents might as well be forever. And there is little question that Democrats, having assumed the mantle of “responsible adults,” are likely to get blamed for every frustration about various measures being taken. I suspect people half know this isn’t fair, but don’t feel it strongly enough to overcome their instinctive reaction to blame the people restricting them rather than the circumstances causing the restriction.
Social Justice Fatigue
This often gets abbreviated as something like “wokeness fatigue”. That gets at it, but describing it that way misses the fundamentally complicated nature of the phenomenon. Virtually everyone at some point is annoyed, even troubled, by incidents of “wokeness” that seem excessive. But I don’t think these incidents, per se, are at the root of the problem for swing voters.
Surely, the accumulation of these issues works on swing voters, but I suspect these voters trot out the more extreme incidents as justification for a deeper frustration: why is everything so damned hard? These voters specifically do not see themselves as racist. They may have voted for Obama and, on a poll question, would indicate support for equal voting rights and protections against overt discrimination. But they have no ear for arguments about systemic racism. They don’t want to feel that the issue of racism is constantly held over their head, that it is necessary to keep thinking about it, to teach their kids how prevalent it is and how comprehensive the solutions need to be. It’s not like they have a coherent set of arguments against this—again, they may have some inkling of its fundamental accuracy—it’s just they don’t want to have to think about it all the time. It makes the world too fraught.
I thought that the George Floyd events of last summer would lead to a real breakthrough in the communal understanding of the mechanisms of racism. I overestimated the degree of acceptance of the existence of systematic racism. It’s not like people don’t understand it. It’s just too wearing and the solutions seem deeply unsettling. People’s drive for homeostasis is huge. It takes a lot of mental effort to accept something as deeply wrong and worry about it when you don’t feel there is anything obvious you can do about it. Most people simply redefine the problem away…or push it to the far edges of their consciousness. And resent being reminded.
Government Disfunction Fatigue
Per above, people want to think their life is ordered. A clear ideology is one way of organizing it. But swing voters don’t have a clear ideology. That’s why they can change so much from election to election. Per above, it seems to me that they vote for whomever they believe is more likely to reduce the stress in their world. The incessant refrain of government disfunction is another source of discomfort to swing voters. They want to vote and assume that government will work out the details. When every day the media tell them government is broken, they don’t want to have think about what means or how it got that way—they just want it fixed.
That is why some voters instinctively turn toward people who seem more decisive and “above” the partisan fray. As Donald Trump showed us, reality is more obstinate. Same thing happened in Illinois, which elected a brash hedge-fund guy as governor because he had simple, clear answers and then found out putting together compromises was part of the job. How Youngkiin will turn out is not yet known, but it is clear he will face the same challenges.
What to Do
I think there are two things the Democrats must do.
- Soften the messages to the base
- Focus on progress, not problems
It entails a huge amount of discipline to soften the messages to the base. Biden was able to do this; McAuliffe wasn’t. Of course, Biden had the advantage of Trump, whose entire strategy was fire up his base thereby firing up the Democratic base. Youngkin, on the other hand, threaded the needle of subtle nods to the base, while keeping an explicit distance.
Democrats need to focus on progress and not rag on all the things wrong. There is no analysis of these problems, regardless of how accurate or eloquent, that will win with these voters. This can’t be simple mindedly declaring victory over problems not yet solved. But it can frame working together is how we are making progress toward a more perfect union. In some respects, one might argue, this the fundamental story of America: starting with a very imperfectly implemented set of ideals and making progress toward realizing them. It’s not a triumphant end-zone celebration, but trying to position our ongoing struggles as what truly makes America great. And, despite continuing problems, there has been progress and it can be celebrated.
This is particularly hard on racial issues. As mentioned above, White swing voters are allergic to discussions of “systematic racism” while that is what has the best chance of getting loosely affiliated Blacks to the polls and Black turnout is essential to Democratic success. This will require some rhetorical legerdemain—and some very careful, targeted on-the-ground mobilization. The above mentioned poll, plus some others, suggests that swing voters support a fairly progressive agenda, as long as it is not presented aggressively. Progress we have made and a generally progressive program should make it possible to finesse this issue, which appears necessary for Democratic success.
The architecture of our government has created a situation where a small number of voters exert outsize influence—a la Joe Manchin. We probably need to think about more fundamental fixes. But in the meantime, we need to hold the House and Senate.