What's the difference between a swing state and a swing voter?

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 30 2008 8:23 PM

So You Think You're a Swing Voter?

Think again: It depends on whether you live in a swing state.

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

(Continued from Page 1)

A few months ago, when the Obama campaign said it was going to compete in Indiana, it looked as if it was just making mischief. A Democrat hasn't won the state since 1964. But the state is starting to look as if it might be a genuine tossup. Polls are tightening—particularly one from respected pollster Ann Seltzer—and Republicans seem to feel some genuine level of threat. The Republican National Committee is running ads there against Obama.

North Carolina is like Indiana. It is not a swing state in the sense that it swings from one party to the other from election to election. It has been reliably Republican since 1976, but there is a hint it may swing this time. Obama is up in the polls, riding a wave of concern about the economy and perhaps even growing fears about Sarah Palin.

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Once campaigns fix on their battleground states, they run a two-track strategy. First, they reach out to their base with highly partisan appeals. But because they can't win with their base alone, they hunt for those weakly committed and undecided swing voters. Though swing voters get lots of attention, they're nothing without a strong base—as George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry learned. All three won the swing vote, according to post-election polls, but none had enough of a base vote to win.

Just because you say you're an independent or unaffiliated voter doesn't mean you're a swing voter. A lot of people who are registered independents turn out to be hidden partisans, and a portion of those who are registered in one of the two parties are nevertheless up for grabs. The former Hillary Clinton supporters have been a vocal example from the current election cycle.

Studies over the years have shown that swing voters tend to be less engaged with the campaign than partisans and are slightly less educated and more moderate. They often live in suburbs,  especially what political scientists call urbanizing suburbs, which can be found between the metropolitan Democratic strongholds and the Republican fringe suburbs and rural areas—areas like the suburbs outside Philadelphia, where McCain and Obama are fighting over the issue of stem-cell research. McCain pitched himself to moderate voters as a champion of such research. Obama responded with ads contending, incorrectly, that McCain is opposed to it. McCain aides are happy even to be in this fight. The Philadelphia suburbs were thought to be lost to Republican candidates.

Swing-voter makeup varies from state to state. Latino voters play a larger role in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. The targeted suburbs in Virginia and Pennsylvania are more moderate than those around St. Louis or Cincinnati. In states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, the uncommitted voters tend to be older, whereas in growth states like Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia they tend to be younger.

There have been many efforts to find the one key voting bloc that will turn the election—soccer moms, Wal-Mart Moms, office-park Dads—but in "The Future of Red, Blue and Purple America," Ruy Teixeira explains why those descriptions have always been either too simplistic or wildly wrong. It's more likely that the winning candidate will need to make inroads into a variety of swing groups.

McCain will have to retain his party's traditional advantage among men while trying to convince independents and soft Democrats to support him. These voters are torn, says McCain pollster Bill Bill Mcinturff. They "really admire" McCain, he says, but they also want "to make absolutely sure that there's going to be change, including change on the economic front." McCain's aides say that since the Palin pick, they have seen some improvement among professional women. They also say it's fallen off as the Obama campaign has reached out to those same women by stressing Obama's positions on the economy and on abortion.

The Democratic Leadership Council argues that Obama, even if he performs well among Democratic constituencies, needs to make inroads into white working-class voters—those men and women with no college degree who work and live in the competitive suburbs. He doesn't have to win that group. (Democrats haven't since 1984.) He just needs not to  lose by a wide margin. Polls suggest he may be on his way. Obama has the clear advantage over McCain with voters on the issues of the economy and who will change Washington. He has also been shrinking his gap with McCain on which candidate has the qualities necessary to be president.

As the science of targeting all voters becomes more precise—Obama voters prefer Starbucks; McCain voters prefer Wal-Mart—identifying voters who are undecided has become even more refined. Instead of focusing on large blocs of swing voters, campaigns can now target blocs within blocks, like gun-owning women with children who live in suburbs. So if you have decided to be a swing voter, don't be surprised if the campaigns already know a lot about you when they come calling.

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