Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Electorate’s portion of ‘swing voters’ reaches a new low

Writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, political scientist John Sides highlights a finding about recent trends in voter participation that seemed both surprising and obvious when I read it. And it’s possibly a big deal. It’s this:

The portion of the electorate that can be classified as true “swing voters” has reached a new low and is possibly still falling.

A true swing voter (although the research on which Sides relies calls them “floating voters”) turns out to vote in every presidential election but often switches from one party to the other. As recently as 1968, about 15 percent of regular voters voted for a candidate of the opposite party from the one they voted for in 1964. Over the last two elections, just 5 percent of voters switched parties in their presidential vote.

The likely reason for this decline seems obvious to me, and Sides alludes to it. The two major parties nowadays actually stand for something clearer than they used to, and are further apart from one another. Presumably, more voters have developed a core ideological feeling that makes it obvious for whom they will vote.

If this pattern continues and strengthens, it will change campaign strategies and the way outcomes are determined. When there were a lot of relatively moderate swing voters who were likely to determine the outcome of a presidential race, it incentivized the candidates, once they had wrapped up their own parties’ nominations, to move closer to the ideological middle in hopes of winning the lion’s share of those swing voters.

If there are fewer swing voters, candidates may focus more on ideological purity in hopes of firing up the party base for a big turnout.

New normal?

If the decrease in swing voting is the new normal (and I think it probably is), it strikes me as both healthy and dangerous. The healthy part is that candidates and parties can actually stand for something. The unhealthy part is that this “new normal” reinforces the polarization that causes so many other stresses on our system.

It links up with what Norm Ornstein said the other day at the Humphrey School: that parties become more tribal and less able to even consider the possibility that a candidate, or a president, from the other tribe/party can be trusted or might have some policies that should be considered with an open mind.

By the way, I credited the finding to Sides, who is one of the most prolific contributors to The Monkey Cage, but he is really passing along recently published scholarly research by political scientist Corwin D. Smidt of Michigan State University.

Here’s the abstract to Smidt’s original article in the American Journal of Political Science:

“The observed rate of Americans voting for a different party across successive presidential elections has never been lower. This trend is largely explained by the clarity of party differences reducing indecision and ambivalence and increasing reliability in presidential voting. American National Election Studies (ANES) Times Series study data show that recent independent, less engaged voters perceive candidate differences as clearly as partisan, engaged voters of past elections and with declining rates of ambivalence, being undecided, and floating. Analysis of ANES inter-election panel studies shows the decline in switching is present among nonvoters too, as pure independents are as reliable in their party support as strong partisans of prior eras. These findings show parties benefit from the behavioral response of all Americans to polarization. By providing an ideological anchor to candidate evaluations, polarization produces a reliable base of party support that is less responsive to short-term forces.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/06/2015 - 08:47 am.

    When beliefs of a candidate actually inspire contempt, it certainly would be hard to remain open to swinging either way.

    I hear tell that there is a certain presidential candidate that believes that the pyramids were actually grain storage bins. Would I then consider voting for him for being a daring iconoclast, or would I just regard it as a sign of a very blinkered world-view that assumes fringe beliefs as reality?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/06/2015 - 09:55 am.


    This is consistent with your earlier observations about polarization.
    ‘Swing voters’ implies the existence of a middle ground; of people not irrevocably committed to one party’s ideology.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/06/2015 - 10:05 am.

    The problem is

    when the people are misinformed through entertainment, social media and/or ignorance relayed from their peers, people are choosing who to vote for based on ignorance and untruths.

    If people were really making an ideological choice between individualism versus collectivism or freedom versus government dependence, I personally would have no problem with the outcome because I would at least know that the people’s choice of the type of government they prefer to live under was based on honesty.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/06/2015 - 11:28 am.


      I couldn’t agree more with your first sentence.

      Too bad the second sentence turns the world from polychromatic to absolute black-and-white. No human society has ever been – and, I’d argue, will never be – entirely “individualistic” in the Ayn Rand sense. Individualism and the concept of “society” are somewhat mutually exclusive, and societies are a blend of both. Some societies – totalitarian ones – tend much more toward the group. Others – more tolerant, less authoritarian ones – tend toward the individual. No societies on the historical record are completely one or the other.

      In similar fashion, “freedom” and “government dependence” are not either-or propositions. No society has ever granted freedom without restriction to its citizens, though monarchies have sometimes tolerated something close to that from the monarch du jour. Even the most repressive dictatorship – feel free to pick your favorite – allows for at least some minimal (by American standards) personal freedom. Meanwhile, the notion that “government dependence” renders one without freedom, or that “freedom” precludes any sort of reliance on government, is, frankly, delusional.

      GIven your parameters, I think an “honest” choice would be pretty difficult, if not impossible, largely because, in the real world, both freedom and dependence are less than absolute. I’d argue that the same spectrum of behavior and belief is at work when considering individualism and collectivism.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/07/2015 - 07:27 am.

        The point is …

        Take any political issue of the day. The sides of the debate are based on the fundamental disagreement between the rights of the individual versus the “greater good” of the group. Whether or not people should be free to make their own choice or whether the choice is made for them by government mandate.

        And for each issue, whichever side of the argument you come down on, it will be because of your fundamental belief of who should have the power in this society, you or the collective (government).

        Conservatives and libertarians lean towards the former; progressives and collectivists lean towards the latter.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/06/2015 - 12:18 pm.

      Speak for yourself

      The problem that some candidates have is that people are all too well informed about what they have actually said and done.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/06/2015 - 11:24 am.

    Social Media

    Eric, I think you’re missing part of the big picture here. Yes, the parties are more ideologically consistent, but that’s only part of the story. I’d argue that the bigger part is how social media has helped people firmly put the opposite party in the ‘other’ pile. Every day, people on the right and left are simply bombarded with tabloid level coverage that hammers home that the Dems/Reps are stupid or evil. That takes its toll.
    Look at the click-bait sites on both sides that throw thinly (or non) sourced accusations at pols from the other party. It doesn’t really matter if they’re true or not, because it takes time to unwind them and the click-bait consumer is virtually never around for a correction. And that assumes that a correction is ever put in place.
    So it becomes common place to think of the opposition as ‘those crazies’ and think that no ‘rational’ person could possibly support them. And voila, we have a deeply divided electorate!
    (And no, I have no idea how to combat this on any large level.)

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/06/2015 - 04:15 pm.

      West Point

      Today offered a pretty good test of this. Count how many people linked to something about Ben Carson lying about West Point. Then count how many of them go to the corrections which show that this story was a tempest in a teacup. I’m guessing that the second number won’t be very large.
      Therefore, they add this to their impression of a candidate and ding him unfairly.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/06/2015 - 06:23 pm.

        How are we to take this?

        Ben Carson has repeatedly claimed he was offered a full scholarship from West Point. He conveys the story in at least two other books, “You Have a Brain” and “Take the Risk.” Carson repeated his West Point claim as recently as Aug. 13, when he fielded questions from supporters on Facebook.
        And in October, Carson shared the story with Charlie Rose: “I had a goal of achieving the office of city executive officer [in JROTC]. Well, no one had ever done that in that amount of time … Long story short, it worked, I did it. I was offered full scholarship to West Point, got to meet General Westmoreland, go to Congressional Medal dinners, but decided really my pathway would be medicine.”

        Read more:

        Hmm, wrote it in a books years ago, and has repeated it often and as late as last month.

        And so how are we supposed to take this story as rational adults ?

        Do you want the link to Charlie Rose last month?

        It’s pretty clear what he was claiming.

        And while you’re at it, clear up the “misunderstandings” about his “violent” past, his view on pyramids, his cosmology questions that stumped a “top physicist”, his statement that there was $500 billion dollars of waste in Medicare, and nutrition supplements that cure autism.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/06/2015 - 08:52 pm.

        Applying to West Point

        from their Web site:

        How do I apply to West Point?
        You apply to West Point by requesting and completing a PreCandidate Questionnaire and by obtaining a nomination, normally from a United States Congressman or a Senator. Fill out the reply card on the back cover of this brochure to obtain a Prospectus and a PreCandidate Questionnaire. A candidate file will be started after you return the PreCandidate Questionnaire, preferably in the spring of your junior year of high school.

        What happens after I fill out the Candidate Questionnaire?
        Your Candidate Questionnaire will be evaluated by the Admissions Office to determine whether or not you will be competitive for admission. If you are a competitive candidate, you will receive additional forms to complete. Fill out those forms as quickly as possible. The Admissions Committee will only evaluate your application file when every requirement has been completed.

        When should I apply for a nomination?
        You should apply for a nomination at the same time you open a candidate file at West Point, preferably during the spring of your junior year. Write a letter to your congressional representative and request a nomination. Members of Congress determine their own application deadlines, so apply early. A candidate cannot be offered admission without a nomination.


        Compare this process with what Carson said and what he actually did and decide whether this is ‘a tempest in a teapot’ for a Presidential candidate.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/07/2015 - 07:33 am.

          Compare this

          to whether Hillary Clinton’s version of events regarding classified information on her server or Clinton Foundation quid pro quo with foreign governments or who ordered the stand down at Benghazi and then decide which candidate deserves our utter rejection based on their veracity.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/07/2015 - 08:26 am.


          Paul and Neal,
          I think that there is little real difference between ‘offered a scholarship’ and being told that it would be easy to get in. Yes, there are differences, but they are semantic. Especially when a) the conversation was decades ago and b) he was relating a quick story to other people.
          I do think this story is very small potatoes.

          Also, think carefully about whether this is the standard you want candidates to be judged on, regarding their honesty…

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/07/2015 - 04:01 pm.

            One of them

            can be taken to the bank.
            If a Congressperson had offered to sponsor him (a necessity for applying) I would expect him to remember that name (or look it up, since given the date there would be only three or four possibilities).
            And this was a story that he published in his books.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/07/2015 - 04:19 pm.


              An appointment to West Point would only need a sponsor if Carson pursued it. He didn’t and has never said that he pursued it. Please note, that even the Politico piece that started off the frenzy has this correct now.

              Suppose your (hypothetical) nephew had a conversation with a general, in which he (the nephew) was told that he could easily get into West Point. If this was relayed to you as a scholarship offer, would you be bothered by that characterization? I wouldn’t.
              The point of Carson’s story, is that he was asked to attend West Point. Given his record at the time, top of his ROTC class in Detroit, it’s much more likely than not that it happened.

              And again I have to ask, is this the standard that you’re going to hold candidates to?

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/08/2015 - 01:10 pm.

                In your own words

                He was not “asked to attend”.
                At the most, someone (identity unclear) stated an opinion that he would be a strong candidate.
                The statement that he was asked to attend is simple, clear, and untrue.
                That it ‘could have happened’ is not enough.
                And once again, the ‘scholarship offer’ (which could not have occurred) was in his books.
                At the least, he is prone to wild and unsupported exaggerations.

                And it’s also interesting that he majored in Psychology at Yale — not Premed.
                He could have saved some money and gotten a top Premed education at the University of Michigan (disclaimer: I received my doctorate in Experimental Psychology there, working with people in the Med School). Sounds like he had broader aspirations than a medical career when he graduated from high school.

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/07/2015 - 07:51 pm.

            …small potatoes….

            When you have an entire pile of “small potatoes” pretty soon you have a lot of potatoes.

            You then know that the field was well fertilized.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/09/2015 - 09:27 am.

            Small Potatoes

            Leaving aside the not-so-veiled warning of the looming “What about [Democrat, probably Hillary Clinton]?” trope, let’s look at the “small potatoes.”

            There is the whole “semantic difference” between “offered a scholarship” and “being told it would be easy to get in.” Perhaps it’s the legal background, but I see a huge difference between the two that is more than just a shade of meaning.

            How about his involvement, and denial of involvement, with Mannatech?

            Or the robbery at Popeye’s?

            Or the stabbing incident of his youth?

            Or the psychology class at Yale (Perceptions 301) that never existed? Or that the incident was a hoax reported in a parody of the Yale Daily News?

            The small potatoes are turning into a large order of fries. Add in his, shall we say, iconoclastic view of history (Cleon Skousen? Really?) and we’ve super-sized our order.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/09/2015 - 08:03 am.

    Should we care about Carson’s confabulations?

    With a small track record in the public eye and expertise in an area that doesn’t necessarily correlate to the demands of the job he is seeking, what else do we have to go on to to judge whether this person is suited to the position?

    Everyone likes to present themselves and their record in the best possible light–and distortions and lies creep in, and become embedded as “fact” when they are well-received.

    There, however is far less room for this sort of alteration of fact when the person claims the mantle of extraordinary honesty wrapped in an air of religiosity. The disconnects between reality and fact are irresistible.

    But when you couple those confabulations with some determined strange views and an apparent lack of understanding of governmental processes and programs, then the disqualification of the candidate begins.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/12/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    Ahem! Getting back on topic…

    I agree that there are fewer voters today who might conceivably find either the D or R candidate worthy of consideration. I used to be a bit of a swing voter during my early years in Oregon. I was basically a Democrat, but I voted for Mark Hatfield for Senate and other Republicans for state offices.
    No longer. I cannot think of one state or national Republican who could win my vote today.

    There are more voters who find neither party attractive. They think that the Republicans are in Cloud Cuckoo Land and that the Democrats have been co-opted by Big Money, in which case they might want to vote for a Green or Democratic Socialist candidate. Or else they think that the Republicans are too into foreign intervention and big money and the Democrats are for fostering dependence, in which case they might want to vote Libertarian.

    When 50% of the population nationwide doesn’t vote at all, we have a problem, which is not of lack of swing voters but of lack of voters, period. Low turnout is a sign of disengagement and fatalism, a hopeless sense that no positive changes, only negative changes, are in our future, no matter who is in office.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/13/2015 - 12:38 pm.


      I agree that many think most politicians are similar and that their vote has little impact. However the “fatalism” piece is too dark for me. I personally think that most citizens are pretty satisfied with the status quo and don’t want any big changes to the Left or Right. It seems to be only those on the Far Left and Far Right that spend a lot of energy complaining about America.

      It is likely that more than a billion world citizens would love to live in the GREAT country that is America, yet folks who live here say silly things like “that no positive changes, only negative changes, are in our future, no matter who is in office.” I will never understand that level of dissatisfaction with the greatest country in the world.

      I learned quite a while back that I choose whether to look at the 5% of things in my life that were “bad or could be better” or the 95% of things in my life that were good or great. Focusing on the 5% led to unhappiness, anger, frustration and arguments, whereas focusing on the 95% led to happiness, gratitude, satisfaction and open communication. Choices Choices.

Leave a Reply