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.