Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Base Versus Swing, Chapter 2,006

There is no political subject quite so perennial, and sometimes tedious, as the endless debate within each major political party about the relative importance in any given election of "base" and "swing" voters, reflecting in turn choices about "mobilization" and "persuasion" strategies.

I've always thought these debates create much more heat than light, and also lead to the Mother Of All False Choices: the suggestion that candidates have to pick a "base" or "swing" focus and stick with it to the bitter end. Most successful candidates in highly competitive races have done both, and frankly, unless there's some deep and unavoidable conflict between what candidates do to "mobilize" or "persuade," it would be, well, kinda counter-intuitive to insist on a choice.

Among Democrats, the current "base" versus "swing" debate, such as it is, mainly emerges from those preferring a "base mobilizaton" strategy, revolving around two arguments: (1) today's climate of partisan polarization has shrunk the size of the true "swing" vote to practical irrelevance, and (2) since the GOP has wholeheartedly committed itself to mobilization efforts, Democrats must do so as well or their base will turn out better than ours.

Chris Bowers of MyDD has been an especially active proponent of the idea that the 2006 midterm elections will be a "base turnout" contest, and his latest post on the subject makes an interesting twist on the old argument: right now Independents are leaning heavily D, but since they turn out in midterm elections at lower rates than partisans, Democrats should not pay them much attention. (According to Chris' own estimates, however, Indies will represent at least one-quarter of the electorate, somewhat undermining the title of his post: "The 2006 Elections Will Not Include Many Independents.").

Now I understand that the number of true "swing voters"--whom I would define as voters who are both persuadable and very likely to vote--is much smaller than the universe of self-identifying Independents, just as Chris understands that the "activist base" he urges Democrats to focus on is much smaller than, and arguably different from, the universe of reliable partisan voters. But however you slice and dice the numbers, there's one enduring fact about the base/swing debate that is incontrovertible:

When you "mobilize" a partisan voter, you pick up at most one net vote. And if your mobilization strategy (e.g., inflaming partisan tensions so that your "base," drunk with passion at the promise of victory, snake-dances to the polls to smite the hated enemy) directly or indirectly helps the other party mobilize its own partisan voters, the net effect will be smaller. But when you "turn" a true swing voter, you pick up two net votes, by gaining a vote and denying it to your opponent as well. So even if you believe the number of "mobilizable" partisans is more than twice as large as the number of "persuadable" swing voters, this "swing multiplier effect" means ignoring them is perilous in close elections.

The bottom line is that I really wish we'd all avoid the temptation of labeling the 2006 elections as "about" any one category of voters, and pursue a strategy of mobilization and persuasion aimed at winning every achievable vote. If we want to take back Congress and win a clear majority of governorships, we'll probably need every one of them.
-- Posted at 1:15 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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