Posted 3 years ago on Aug. 17, 2012, 10:59 a.m. EST by LeoYo
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Few voters are truly up for grabs, research suggests
Many self-described independents reliably vote for one party or the other
By REBECCA BERG
updated 8/17/2012 1:04:28 AM ET
WASHINGTON — Curtis Napier, a 52-year-old father of two in Lima, Ohio, belongs to a much-discussed group of Americans that is far smaller than is often realized: He is a true swing voter.
He voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and for Barack Obama in 2008. With three months remaining in the campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Mr. Napier said, “I may not just vote for either one of them.”
About one-third of Americans describe themselves as independent voters, creating a widespread impression that a large group of Americans will provide the decisive swing votes in this year’s election. But that impression is misleading, polling experts and political scientists say.
Many self-described independents — close to half, according to surveys — reliably vote for one party or the other. And many true swing voters live in states, like California or Texas, where no analyst doubts the outcome in November.
In spite of clichés about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.
“There’s a very small slice of people who are genuinely undecided, but it’s enough to win the presidency,” said Rich Beeson, the political director for Mr. Romney’s campaign.
The share of swing voters may even have declined in recent years, as many voters have become more reliably partisan. A report by the Pew Research Center found that self-identified Democrats are more liberal than in the past and self-identified Republicans are more conservative.
A decline in swing voters would help explain why Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have stayed within just a few points of each other, across many polls, despite months of a gyrating economy and attacks on both candidates.
It is still unknown whether the selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as Mr. Romney’s running mate will provide him with a bump in the polls. But so far, the Gallup tracking poll has not indicated any immediate bump, even though vice-presidential choices have historically provided one.
In close races in particular, cable news pundits and political observers revel in swing-voter guesswork, but the ensuing portrait is often more composite sketch than photograph.
“There is so much pop psychology surrounding swing voters, but there is very little evidence that there are key demographics in the population that are inherently swing voters,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “That doesn’t mean that in a particular election you can’t drill down, down, down, down and identify a group of swing voters. But how big is that group really, and is that group a swing group in a chronic sense? Probably not.”
Part of the difficulty in identifying swing voters derives from confusion about the term “swing voter” itself. These voters might describe themselves as “undecided,” for example, or as “persuadable.” Often, they call themselves “independents,” although many who identify that way are not.
Myths about the behavior of these voters are pervasive and persistent: For example, that undecided voters break for the challenger as Election Day nears. (Data have shown this is often not the case.)
Among those whose past behavior suggests they are up for grabs this year, a few demographics are well represented. Many of those swing voters will be younger, or will not have graduated from college. More swing voters will be women than men.
In three tossup states — Colorado, Florida and Nevada — Hispanics could make up as much as one-fifth of the swing vote. And non-college graduates will make up roughly 57 percent of swing voters in battleground states this year, according to one Democratic pollster, whose estimates were confirmed within a few points by a Republican.
Of likely swing voters, white non-college voters are “particularly low-information voters who don’t pay attention to the daily political back-and-forth, so their opinions are driven by their economic situation,” said Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, a polling firm for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama “super PAC.” Many, he said, are “fond of the president personally, but skeptical about their economic prospects.”
A senior Romney aide, who requested anonymity discussing strategy, says the campaign’s microtargeting has identified specific swing-voter-rich counties in swing states: In Virginia, for example, a large number of swing voters are concentrated in Fairfax County, just outside the District of Columbia; in Ohio, by contrast, undecided or persuadable voters are scattered throughout the state. In some cases, demographic patterns emerge: In Arapahoe County, Colo., just outside Denver, the majority of swing voters will probably be women, the aide said.
Among these swing voters, only some are genuinely torn about whom to support but are certain they will vote, and a significant number favor a political party and will vote for the candidate of that party or not at all.
Mr. Napier, the swing voter from Ohio, said last month that he might fall into the latter category this year, but that he did not yet have enough information to decide. Between working full time for a fabrication company and attending school part time for a degree in manufacturing engineering, he said consideration of the presidential election was an afterthought.
In 2008, Mr. Napier drew much of his information from the presidential debates, in which, he says, “McCain seemed to be distracted most of the time when he talked, and Obama seemed to be an educated man who has focus.”
Swing voters often form their opinions about candidates based on emotional intangibles and a few events, like the debates. Candidates may have just one chance to make an impression on these voters, and not always on the campaigns’ terms.
“With these voters, they’re only paying half attention, but all of these outside events have an effect,” said Neil Newhouse, the head of polling for Mr. Romney’s campaign.
Vying for the attention of these voters, the campaigns will wage a violent tug of war, which will include television advertising, digital strategy and vast ground operations.
“I really do believe that the average swing voter in these states — people are going to see all these ads and, at some point, they’re going to have a conversation with their friends and family and neighbors about how they’re going to vote, and we’re going to be there,” said Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager.
But for all of the money and resources that will be spent to persuade swing voters, experts agree that the attention could prove unrequited.
“I’m fairly certain about one thing: if turnout is lower in 2012 than in 2008 (which is not so unlikely), then there will be fewer ‘swing voters’ turning out,” Markus Prior, an associate professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in an e-mail. “In lower-turnout elections, you will find a higher share of committed partisans.”
Indeed, the possibility that partisan voters will drive this year’s election outcome is likely enough that it raises the question of whether swing voters are worth the attention they will receive.
“There’s a constant debate in politics between turnout and persuasion, but the reality is, in close elections both things are important,” said Geoff Garin, a consultant for Priorities USA Action. “A campaign ignores one in favor of the other at its great peril.”
This story, "Pursuing the elusive swing voter," originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2012 The New York Times