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.
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.”