Ignore Swing Voters at Your Peril!
In the modest guise of a book review, Ruy Teixeira has reopened an important issue in American politics: Who are the swing voters, and how important are they in these hyperpolarized times?
The answer matters a lot, both for campaign strategy and for the conduct of elected officials. If swing voters are insignificant, then campaigns and incumbents can focus on mobilization—that is, on whipping up the fervor of those who already support them. If swing voters make a difference, then the challenge is to balance mobilization and persuasion—doing enough to keep your supporters happy while giving persuadable voters good reasons to prefer you to the alternatives. If there aren’t many swing voters, which is what Teixeira suggests, the question of their significance is answered by default—with the upshot that the only types of elections the American people deserve are hyperpolarized ones. Fortunately, there’s good reason to believe otherwise.
Teixeira’s argument rests on the contention that independents are too often mistaken for swing voters. Citing a stack of solid political science studies, he pours cold water on the popular thesis that independents are a horde of untethered voters ripe for mobilization by the clarion call of moderation and compromise. Most independents “lean” toward one party or the other, and the leaners behave much like the partisans of the party toward which they incline. True (non-leaning) independents constitute only one-fifth of total independents, and less than one-tenth of the electorate. (In a close election, of course, even a relatively small group can be decisive if its members give a super-majority to one party.)