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Swingtime for Obama

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Mark Duncan/AP Images
President Obama and Michelle Obama after a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, May 5, 2012

When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in his May 9 interview with ABC News, speculation among pundits focused immediately on the political fallout, and specifically on the question of how independent voters—i.e., those not committed to either party—would respond to the new position. The usual survey machinery got to work, and answers quickly started coming in. A Gallup/USA Today poll published on May 10 found, for example, that independents supported legal marriage for gay couples by a margin of 53 to 44 percent; however, when asked whether Obama’s announcement made them more or less likely to vote for the president, they went against Obama and their own majority. Just 11 percent said more likely, while 23 percent said less likely, and 63 percent responded that it would make no difference.

The announcement may have been forced on the president by Vice President Joe Biden, who, in endorsing gay marriage the previous Sunday on Meet the Press, got “a little bit over his skis,” as Obama put it in an uncharacteristically vivid metaphor. Evidently, Obama was going to make such an announcement later this year anyway—among other reasons, he needs money from gay donors and bundlers, the big-money givers who go out and recruit others sympathetic to Obama. But whatever the internal machinations, it took courage for Obama to take this position, the dangers of which are borne out by the Gallup numbers I’ve mentioned: Obama and his aides had no idea whether backing gay marriage would help or hurt his reelection chances.

My own hunch is that it’s a tremendous risk; the majority of independents that supports same-sex marriage is narrow and quite new historically. It also seems likely that it this majority is concentrated in a handful of states he’s going to win anyway—or in cities he’s going to carry inside states he’s going to lose anyway (Atlanta and Austin among them).

As for Romney, he’s against even civil unions, and he backs adding an amendment to the Constitution that would define marriage as between, as he always puts it, “one man and one woman.” Those positions may be extreme enough for Obama eventually to claim the middle ground on the issue. But there’s an interesting paradox here: because Obama did the politically risky thing, it appears that he is the one who is out on a limb, while in fact his position has a (bare) majority while Romney’s stand against civil unions is opposed by about two thirds of Americans. But Obama will need to invest time and resources in explaining that difference to voters, and when time and resources become scarce this fall, his campaign may decide that it should devote those assets to other battles.

In either case, it will be the swing voters whose verdict will likely be crucial. The evangelicals on the right who will vote against Obama and the young people on the left who might be drawn to vote for him because of the marriage issue may, on balance, cancel each other out. The scales will likely be tipped depending on the views of voters in the center—a group including many who haven’t proclaimed any committed party allegiance, and see themselves as “independent.” Hence the importance, in this and every election, of those people in the middle. They are apparently more numerous than ever. In 2004, they made up 26 percent of the electorate, according to CNN exit polls (John Kerry beat George W. Bush among them, but only by a statistically insignificant 49 to 48 percent). In 2008, they made up 29 percent of the vote (Obama took 52 percent among them to John McCain’s 44).

Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization in Washington, studied the voter registration rolls in eight battleground states where voter enrollment is partisan (that is, where voters must select an affiliation of some kind when they register, which isn’t the case in every state), and found that in those states, independent enrollment had increased 3.4 percent while Republican enrollment decreased 3.1 percent and Democratic enrollment dropped by 5.1 percent.1 It seems reasonable to think that independents will make up 31 to even 33 percent of the vote this November. So who, precisely, are these people?

Independent voters have been examined and dissected for decades, since at least the 1950s. Study after study comes along to categorize them, typically under rubrics that the researchers hope will catch the media’s attention: a 2007 Washington Post/Kennedy School/ Kaiser Family Foundation study placed them in five categories, four of them starting with “dis-” and ending, respectively, with “-engaged,” “-located,” “-illusioned,” and “-guised.” The fifth subset were mere “deliberators.”

The categories sound silly, but they do get at a central truth, which is that there are many different kinds of independent voters. And the most central truth of all is that independents and swing voters, terms you’ll often hear used interchangeably on cable television, aren’t really the same thing. There are, studies have found, a certain number of swing voters who are enrolled in either party but who are “soft” Democrats or Republicans. But more important, the number of genuine swing voters is far, far smaller than the number of people who register as independents.

The main reason for this is that most independents feel more or less at home in one party or the other. One can see this readily in the presidential polls, which typically show both Obama and Romney in the mid-to-high 40s, leaving only 6 or 7 percent of the electorate truly undecided at this point. These semicommitted independents tend to vote the same way they answer survey questions. As the electoral demographer Ruy Teixeira noted in The New Republic in March, using the authoritative National Election Study data assembled by the University of Michigan, 90 percent of self-identified Democratic-leaning independents voted for Obama, and a still-high 78 percent of Republican-leaning independents voted for McCain. Only 7 percent of the entire electorate, and 20 percent of nominal independents, were truly swing voters.2

It should be noted that these soft commitments can change in off-year elections. Indeed, 2010 saw one of the largest shifts among independent voters in recent times, as they moved from supporting Obama by eight points in 2008 to backing Republican House candidates by fifteen points, 55 to 40 percent, in 2010. But the data show that changes in presidential election years usually aren’t great—allegiances usually swing by a few points, certainly nowhere near the twenty-three-point shift from 2008 to 2010.

Demographically, the swing voters are mostly white, but otherwise diverse in their incomes and levels of education. Many have college degrees or even advanced degrees. But a 2008 study by Al From and Victoria Lynch of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) concluded that the “most significant group of swing voters,” the group whose vacillations from one party to the other over the course of several elections had the largest impact on election outcomes, was made up of white voters with at least a high school diploma, possibly some college, but not a college degree.3

These are voters likely to be buffeted by the prevailing economic winds, and sure enough, the economy is nearly always the most important issue for swing voters. Suspicious of government spending, at least in theory, they tend to rate reducing the deficit as a higher priority than voters overall do. They express disgust at partisan gridlock and tend to blame both parties about equally for it. They are somewhat closer to the Democratic Party on social issues and many domestic policy concerns (such as environmental protection), but more like Republicans on fiscal matters. This cross-pollination is well-expressed in recent polling, again by Third Way, on swing voters’ feelings about economic inequality. They acknowledge its existence and believe it should be addressed, but it’s not a top priority for them, and they think that it is better addressed by expanding economic opportunity (69 percent) than ensuring that the rich pay more in taxes (24 percent).4

If you want to find them on a map, well, this “significant group” of swing voters can be found everywhere. But to find the ones whose votes are of maximum importance, look for the partly exurban counties around the largest cities in the swing states. Take Stark County, Ohio, south of Cleveland and Akron: Obama won it 50 to 48 percent. Hillsborough County, Florida, which includes Tampa but also covers vast suburban and rural areas to the east: Obama 51 percent, McCain 48. Loudon County, Virginia, west of the nation’s capital: Obama 54, McCain 46. It is areas like these that are particularly important—I choose those three counties because it remains very much up in the air whether Obama will win them a second time.

A running debate rages in Washington between liberal and centrist Democrats about just how many swing voters there are, and precisely how disaffected they are. Republicans don’t appear to take a side in this argument, perhaps because today’s brand of Republicanism is less interested in trying to persuade swing voters than in revving up the right-wing base. Centrist outfits like Third Way and the DLC, suspicious of the old-time liberalism, are constantly warning that Democrats have to deliver a more centrist message—emphasizing “opportunity” over “fairness,” for example.

That’s not especially controversial. A point of far greater contention is that centrists want the Democrats to be flexible on entitlement reform—to be willing, say, to raise the retirement age, or to index Social Security benefits to a different inflation measurement that would, over time, save the program money—and reduce benefits, especially as beneficiaries get into their eighties. For liberals, there is only one valid position with respect to Social Security and Medicare: defend them.

The core of the argument, though, really comes down to attitudes about one of the key points of Washington conventional wisdom in our age of dysfunction and polarization—the idea that “both sides,” liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are more or less equally to blame for our problems. Centrists tend to agree that this is the case. Liberals scoff at the idea that, according to one often-heard cliché, “both parties are captive to their extremes.” On liberal blogs this is mocked as “High Broderism,” after David Broder, the late Washington Post columnist who spent years writing columns wagging his finger at both sides.

Broder’s general view remains an article of faith among some commentators, expressed perhaps out of a need to appear to be “fair.” It may have been true twenty years ago. Today, any such claim that both sides are equally guilty is nonsense that requires willful ignorance of the evidence. The most irrefutable data come from the political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, who have done the unglamorous work of charting nearly every roll-call vote in the history of Congress. Poole, of the University of Georgia, told me for a Daily Beast piece earlier this year:

What is accurate to say, beyond doubt, is that the Republicans have moved out to the right very fast, while the Democrats have drifted to the left, maybe, but nowhere close to what the Republicans have done.5

Poole’s view is confirmed by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,6 in which these two judicious congressional scholars argue that they once accepted the both-sides argument but now conclude that the GOP is the more obstreperous party, implacably opposing anything that might result in a political benefit for the Democrats—a tax on carbon in the atmosphere, say, which even ExxonMobil supports, but which Republicans will never consider because passing it would represent a big victory for Obama’s agenda.

This disagreement is important because how one sizes up the problem has major implications for policy—what Democrats should be willing to do to appease the swing voter. There are the questions of Social Security and Medicare, and others besides. How far should Democrats go in reducing benefits? On budget cuts? On seeming “reasonable”? Obama tried seeming reasonable last year, when the Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling, breaking a long-standing consensus. The White House’s strategy of offering concessions was aimed specifically at swing voters. Obama walked away from the mess with lower poll numbers, even among voters in the middle, who thought he looked weak. Swing voters, then, might be a little more mysterious than the experts think.

Linda Killian, in her acknowledgments in The Swing Vote, writes a tribute to Broder, who, she says, “was a mentor and friend to me.” She is a committed member of the both-sides caucus. She writes a few too many foggy sentences like “It would continue to prove difficult for Republicans and Democrats to transcend party politics and work together,” and while she criticizes Republicans for their refusal to raise taxes and for other failings, she takes care to balance out that criticism with reproaches of Obama for not being able to end partisanship, as if he has not tried. Finally, she overstates the extent to which there exists out there in the heartland an army of agitated citizens who ache for a moderate alternative to the two parties.

All that said, The Swing Voter has useful observations. Killian, a former NPR reporter who is now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, emulated the admirable part of Broder’s legacy and traveled around the country interviewing hundreds of voters who are disaffected. There are lessons to be learned from her reporting.

She identifies four types of independent voters. (1) “NPR Republicans” are “fiscal conservatives who are moderate or libertarian on social issues.” They have been moving away from the GOP because of the religious right. (2) The “Facebook Generation” is mostly thirty-five or under; its members are generally social liberals (on the environment or race), but “this age group doesn’t really trust either political party and doesn’t understand why it can’t have more political choices.” (3) The “Starbucks Moms and Dads” are “a fickle group who don’t mind changing party allegiance” from election to election and “tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate, concerned about education, national security, and environmental issues.” Finally (4), the “America First Democrats,” concentrated in the Rust Belt, support strong defense, are populist on economic issues such as trade and protectionism, but are “more traditional and conservative on social issues than they perceive the Democratic Party to be.”

Killian chooses one state that is emblematic of each of the groups—respectively, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio. She talks with politicians from both parties—moderate Republican state legislators in New Hampshire chased from their party’s ranks, Democrats like the Virginia Senator Jim Webb, retiring after just one term partly out of disgust—who dissent from some party positions. She speaks with voters like Julia Pfaff of Fairfax County, Virginia, a former Army captain married to an active-duty military man, whose comments could stand for a good many others:

I’m part of this huge group of Americans who feel disenfranchised. We don’t like where we’re headed. It’s like we’re riding on a bus, and the two parties are the drivers who are arguing over who gets to control the steering wheel. Meanwhile, there’s a cliff in front of us and we’re headed straight for it. The rest of us are stuck in the back of the bus, saying, “There’s a cliff up there, do something.”

There is no question that millions of Americans share Pfaff’s frustration. The “cliff” suggests bad, or very bad, economic prospects. But there is a question whether these millions can in fact become an organized political unit, and indeed whether—given their own very clear differences with one another, which Killian herself describes well—they even want to be. There was a group this year called Americans Elect that was designed precisely to speak to disillusioned moderates and let them pick a presidential ticket outside of the party-led primary-and-caucus process. Its campaign was announced with great fanfare and was well funded. It featured an eminent and bipartisan board of advisers, including Michael Eisner and Christine Todd Whitman. It even secured a ballot line in twenty-seven states (usually the biggest impediment to third-party efforts because the logistics are nightmarish). This was the project that was going to rouse Linda Pfaff and people like her to take up their pikes.

What happened? On May 15, Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd announced that “no candidate has reached the national support threshold required to enter the ‘Americans Elect Online Convention’ this June.” That is, not enough people voted online. The group’s main problem was that it couldn’t persuade any truly prominent politicians to seek its nomination. It cast its line out for some pretty big fish—Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Condoleezza Rice, and Joe Lieberman, for example. But no one bit.

One hears Bloomberg’s name in particular from certain members of our elite political class. He is a moderate, and he could run as an independent and spend a billion dollars if he wanted to. But the idea that he could accomplish anything—other than ensuring the election of the Republican candidate—is fantasy. In our current climate, about 40 percent of the electorate is very conservative and would vote for Sarah Palin. All Bloomberg, or anyone, would do is split the remaining 60 percent. So this is a plan that would reward the very people who are the main cause of the problem.

One far-reaching solution to our problems seems simple—although there is no sign that it will be done—encouraging and electing more moderate Republicans, who would be more willing to legislate and compromise as in the old days, making bipartisan coalitions a reality and even overcoming the specter of the filibuster on all but the most contentious issues. The Senate now has about seventeen or eighteen moderate Democrats. If that body had anywhere near the same number of genuine moderate Republicans, instead of the two or three it has now, our politics would be very different indeed; so would they if the House had forty or fifty moderate Republicans, instead of the small handful it has now. We wouldn’t be up against a brick wall on taxes, which Republicans refuse to raise under any circumstances, and there would be more than enough moderate legislators from both parties to work out compromises on the major issues of the day. It might seem a simple solution but it is not. The GOP is still galloping in the direction of becoming more extreme, and moderate billionaires seem less interested in investing in this hard work than do their right-wing counterparts.

In the meantime, Obama and Romney will battle for the different groups of disaffected citizens. Each leads among independents in different recent polls, depending on whether the issue of the moment is the worrisome economy or conservative attacks on contraception. No one expects that Obama will repeat his eight-point margin among independents in 2008. He doesn’t need to in order to be reelected, but he probably must win among them.

While gay marriage will matter, the main thing will be the economy. Here, the ideas that Obama has emphasized since his big speech in Kansas last fall—of fairness, of making the rich pay their share in taxes—seem more aimed at the Democratic base than at swing voters. And Romney, since securing the nomination, has made no gesture to centrist voters that I can see—he has merely benefited by not having to argue any longer with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. So neither side has conceived of an argument to win the swing vote.

Each has, however, begun to fashion attacks on the other side that they hope will persuade the undecideds. Romney will portray Obama as unequipped to revive the economy and cut the deficit. Obama will paint Romney as an elitist who will bring back supply-side policies with a vengeance. Romney benefits from a broad perception that he isn’t really as conservative as he acted during the primaries. Obama will try to persuade swing voters that Romney is that conservative, or at least that he isn’t his own man and will do the far right’s bidding, and the outcome may well turn on whether he can make that case.

  1. 1

    See Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, “Independents Day 2012,” December 2011, at www.thirdway.org. Technically, it is more proper to refer to independent voters as “unaffiliateds,” since some states (New York among them) have an Independence or Independent Party; but political journalism has somehow settled on using the word “independent” to mean “not Republican or Democrat.” 

  2. 2

    See Ruy Teixeira, “The Great Illusion,” The New Republic, March 7, 2012. This was a negative review of Killian’s book. 

  3. 3

    See Al From and Victoria Lynch, “Who Are the Swing Voters?,” Democratic Leadership Council, September 25, 2008. 

  4. 4

    From question 37A, Third Way/Global Strategy Group poll of 1,024 swing voters, conducted March 8 through 18, 2012. 

  5. 5

    See “Michael Tomasky on the GOP ’s Rush to the Right in Congress,” The Daily Beast, February 1, 2012. 

  6. 6

    Basic Books, May 2012. 

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