Every four years, the media announce which slice of American voters— Soccer Moms, Security Moms, Waitress Moms, NASCAR Dads, Office Park Dads, Joe Six-Packs, Angry White Males, or One-Armed Vegetarian Live-In Boyfriends—will decide the election for the rest of us. Equally ritualistic is the gleeful debunking of these ever-proliferating categories of swing voter. This year, with John McCain and Barack Obama redrawing the electoral map, it's going to be difficult to pinpoint a single group as the key to victory. But that doesn't mean media outlets (including this one) won't try.
Pollsters generally discover swing voters in one of two ways. They can ask voters point-blank whom they're supporting and whether they'll change their mind. Or they can "message-test," which is more costly. In message-testing, a pollster describes to voters a candidate's policies and plans and then asks the voters whether they agree. Anyone who can be converted in the course of such an exchange is a potential swing voter.
Once you've got your swing voters, you start looking for patterns. Maybe there's an abnormal number of middle-class women between the ages of 30 and 50 (Soccer Moms). Maybe they come from a certain geographical area or educational background (NASCAR Dads). Maybe there's one issue that gets their blood boiling (Security Moms). Slap on a catchy name and you've got yourself a news cycle!
Many pollsters are skeptical of the exercise. "It's not how elections work," says Geoff Garin, who served as Hillary Clinton's pollster. Mark Blumenthal, who runs Pollster.com, is equally dubious. "We could do with less mythic swing voter groups," he said. The problem, they say, is that trying to pin an election outcome on one narrow group misses the reality that elections are decided by complex combinations of turnout and preference among many demographic groups.
But where's the fun in that? Here at Slate, we feel just as entitled as anyone to engage in a frivolous search for influential subgroups. I quizzed pollsters about who they thought would be this year's fad. The short answer was that nobody knows yet. But there's no shortage of contenders.
Pollster John Zogby coined this term for voters who are either "springing forward" or "falling back" in the new economy. This year, he expects those falling behind to influence the election. Residing in potential swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan, these former Reagan Democrats voted for Clinton and then for George W. Bush and are now hurt by the decline of the manufacturing sector. Whether they vote Democratic or Republican this year, Zogby says, depends on whether they vote economy or vote values.
The $70,000 Club
Income is usually an indicator of voting habits. "It used to be there was a breaking point in the $50,000 range," Garin says. That has moved up in recent months. "Once you hit $70,000, Republicans start to win pretty decisively." For Obama and McCain, the battleground will be people with income in the $50,000-to-$70,000 range—cops, funeral directors, postmasters, accountants, teachers, statisticians, landscape architects, urban planners, historians, music directors, dental hygienists, detectives, ship engineers, and others.
Environmentalist Truck Drivers
Skyrocketing oil prices are especially burdensome to people who drive long distances. Skyrocketing oil consumption is especially worrying to environmentalists. The candidates are straining to capture both constituencies by pledging to implement cap-and-trade programs and to increase our energy supply. Voters may turn to whomever offers the greatest short-term relief on both fronts. McCain's economic plan currently offers a gas tax holiday, but few economists support that particular measure.
The myth of Obama's Latino problem exploded once general-election polls showed him leading McCain in that group by a 2-to-1 margin. But the fight isn't over. McCain alienated Latinos last year when he emphasized border security over his own legislation, which would have created a pathway to citizenship. But at a Latino conference in June, McCain reassured his audience that immigration would be "my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow." It could make the difference in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, and even Arizona, where a Zogby poll showed Obama leading. In Florida, the increasing dominance of non-Cuban Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans, is tipping the Latino vote Democratic. Goodbye, Elian Gonzales; hello, Vieques!
In 2004, George W. Bush famously won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties, many of them exurban communities. It was to be the foundation for the permanent Republican majority, thanks to anti-government sentiment and social conservatism in the exurbs. But some are skeptical of whether McCain can match Bush's level of support in these areas. One reason, some Democrats contend, is they're not as conservative as you think. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira has described exurban voters as "tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically anti-government. They tend to be religious and family-oriented, but socially moderate in comparison to rural residents. They are not anti-business, but they do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system." Based on that description, McCain is on solid ground. But if he's going to stop Obama from winning key swing states like Ohio and Virginia, he'll need strong support from this group.
Rather than tease out certain subgroups of yore, the trend this year is to consolidate. The thinking is that they're all (well, mostly) white women, who have become a cohesive voting bloc unto themselves. "If a Republican wins among white women, we usually win that election," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told NBC last month. At that time, Obama had a seven-point lead over McCain among white women—better than John Kerry did in 2004. Whether McCain can catch up depends on whether the ladies decide to vote on security or the economy.
Voters tend to assess candidates of their own age cohort pitilessly. Baby boomers gave Bill Clinton an especially hard time. Seniors often raised Bob Dole's age as a liability. "Older voters think, 'I can't do it so how can you?' " says Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners. So while older voters usually lean Republican, John McCain risks alienating his peers merely by acting like them. His recent comments about Social Security being a "disgrace" don't help. "Older voters usually they make up their minds first," Lake says, "but they're still undecided this time."
"If you're under 30, the question is not whether you'll vote Obama but whether you'll vote," says Geoff Garin. In past elections, turnout among 18-to-25-year-olds has lagged behind that of their parents. But during primary season, Barack Obama managed to mobilize an unprecedented number of young people, and enthusiasm doesn't seem to be waning. The question is whether the kids will come back for the general. McCain's best hope is not to win them over but to disenchant them with Obama so they stay home. That, or screen a daylong Aqua Teen Hunger Force marathon on Nov. 4.