In Search of the Elusive Swing Voter

It almost doesn't matter who the Democratic candidate is. In terms of strategy, the road map for the coming presidential campaign was set long before the primaries—and it runs straight through the handful of states with the largest numbers of independent voters. Any candidate needs to hunt them down

During the primary season we are accustomed to focusing on the drama and intrigue in a few important states such as New Hampshire and Iowa. A candidate who can win these, it is believed, is all but certain to carry the nomination. Suddenly that's less true than in years past. Because so many candidates are running, and because the contests are not winner-take-all, formerly inconsequential states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, and even Delaware could be critical in determining who finally emerges as the next Democratic nominee. In contrast, we tend to view the general election as wide open, when in fact fewer and fewer states have determined the outcome in recent presidential elections. The reason for this is the growing polarization of the American electorate.

In fact, there is empirical evidence to suggest that this year's contest may be the most partisan in history. In the 2000 election less than 10 percent of Democrats voted for George W. Bush, and a similarly small percentage of Republicans voted for Al Gore—the lowest voter crossover ever documented. The Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, the Bush Administration's hard-nosed tactics, and the war in Iraq have only widened this divide.

As the American electorate becomes ever more polarized, the number of undecided voters and the number of states in which the two parties will truly compete have diminished considerably. Two decades ago as much as a third of the electorate was deemed to be in play, and there were grand debates, particularly in the Democratic Party, about whether the best way to win "swing" voters was to pursue a southern strategy or to target the Rocky Mountains. "A basic postulate of American politics today," says the political demographer Mark Gersh, a Democratic strategist, "is that the swing vote is much, much smaller than it used to be." Strategists in both parties have narrowed their focus to no more than 10 percent of the electorate (some have narrowed it even further), and both parties plan to seriously contest only about fifteen states in November. This shrunken playing field, along with hardening lines in the electorate, all but guarantees a close race. That in turn limits the strategic possibilities for both parties to the point where it is possible to predict in considerable detail what the next campaign will look like—even without knowing the identity of the Democratic nominee.

There is a widespread misperception that the course of a presidential campaign flows directly from the candidate's persona. Naturally, a Howard Dean campaign would differ in style and atmospherics from one featuring Wesley Clark or John Kerry or Richard Gephardt. But with so little room to maneuver, the Democratic formula for victory will depend less than ever on the identity of the nominee. Instead it will be dictated by geographic and demographic necessity—how best to cobble together the necessary 270 electoral votes. The candidate must carry a sufficient number of swing states, and success in each one will depend on highly specific combinations of constituencies and issues—many of which can already be identified. In other words, just as the genetic blueprint for human beings and chimpanzees is 95 percent identical, the campaign blueprint for the Democratic candidates will be nearly the same, regardless of which becomes the party's nominee.

The unprecedented closeness of the 2000 presidential election has had dramatic effects on the political world, from the news media's hesitancy to call election results to the parties' renewed emphasis on voter turnout to the newfound superstition among speechwriters that they must prepare three versions of a candidate's election-night remarks: the dignified victory speech, the gracious concession, and a third in case the election is too close to call. To political demographers, who digest ungodly amounts of data in an effort to understand and predict the behavior of the American electorate, the 2000 contest provided a sort of Rosetta stone: a demographic snapshot of a nation in perfect balance, which has become the starting point for strategy in 2004.

All told, twelve states in the previous presidential election were decided by fewer than five percentage points. Along with two or three other states where demographic changes portend a similar closeness, they make up the battleground this year. The most significant states are scattered across the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington), the Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico), and the Rust Belt (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia), with outliers on the East Coast (Florida and New Hampshire) and others along a lengthy stretch of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota and Wisconsin down to Arkansas and Missouri. The next Democratic campaign will closely follow this map.

The Northwest

In numerical terms the most striking aspect of the 2000 election remains the number of votes Al Gore lost to Ralph Nader. "Democrats created an opening for Nader in 2000 by not taking the Green Party seriously enough until it was too late," says Doug Sosnik, a White House political director under Bill Clinton. To head off a similar catastrophe the Democratic nominee will probably begin his campaign with an early pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest, where Green Party support is strongest, to quell a potential challenge. Such a move would not only strengthen the candidate's standing in Oregon and Washington, two states Gore won narrowly, but also provide a platform for talking about the environment—one of the few "wedge issues" available to Democrats, and an issue pollsters believe is the primary motivator for six percent of voters.

The South

The other great political truth revealed in 2000—and reinforced in 2002—is the Republicans' consolidation of the South. The long-standing axiom that the Democrats must carry southern states to win the presidency still holds sway among many political consultants, and at least partially accounts for the premium placed on southern candidates such as Wesley Clark and John Edwards. But Democratic strategists are increasingly aware that that goal has become nearly unattainable. With the exception of Florida, the South has trended away from the party. Bill Clinton's success in the 1990s was not indicative of a southern Democratic resurgence—rather, it masked this erosion. Georgia, which Clinton carried in 1992, went Republican in 1996. Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, which Clinton carried in both his elections, all followed suit in 2000. Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, warns, "Pursuing a southern strategy in 2004, instead of looking ahead to other areas, could relegate the party to minority status for years to come." Indeed, the futility of a southern strategy is tacitly acknowledged in the list of swing states that Democratic groups are planning to contest this year. Of the seventeen states targeted by America Coming Together, a coalition of liberal interest groups aimed at mobilizing Democratic voters, only Florida and Arkansas are in the South.

The Southwest

The Democrats' new area of opportunity is a swath of formerly Republican territory where an influx of Latinos and transplanted white Democrats is changing the demographic profile. Gore's lone win in this region was New Mexico, where his margin of victory was even narrower than his margin of defeat in Florida. But newly elected Democratic governors in Arizona and New Mexico and booming Hispanic populations there (25 percent and 42 percent, respectively) should persuade this year's nominee to spend considerable time and effort in the region. Nevada, too, has become a case study for Democratic optimism: although Bush carried the state in 2000, the Latino population surged by 15 percent in just the next two years; Clark County, which leans Democratic, is among the nation's fastest-growing counties; and Las Vegas, in that county, is rapidly unionizing. Furthermore, Nevada presents an enticing opportunity to raise the issue of Yucca Mountain, where President Bush recently decided to dump nuclear waste after vowing during his campaign not to do so.


Latinos, who have historically been identified with the Democratic Party, now represent an important swing vote. As it became clear in the closing weeks of the 2000 campaign that several battleground states would go down to the wire, the Republicans spent an unprecedented amount of money on Spanish-language television advertising; overall, they ended up spending more than twice as much as the Democrats. According to Adam J. Segal, the director of the Hispanic Voter Project, at Johns Hopkins University, the Bush campaign poured money into Florida media markets in particular, stoking Hispanic anger over the Clinton Administration's handling of the Elián González affair—and ultimately helping to deprive Gore of the state and the election. (In contrast, Gore outspent Bush nearly three to one in New Mexico, and won.) And with some strategists believing that the 2004 election, too, could hinge on Florida—and that Florida could hinge on the heavily Hispanic I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando—the Democrats are sure to avoid making the same mistake again.

The Upper Midwest

The culturally cautious Rust Belt states that were a key to Bush's win have been particularly hard hit by the net loss of three million jobs since Bush took office, 2.4 million of them in the manufacturing sector. As the Democratic contenders delight in pointing out, Bush stands to become the first President since Herbert Hoover to see the country lose more jobs than it gained on his watch. Even if the economy improves, a critical component of the Democrats' regional rhetoric will be reminding voters exactly how many manufacturing jobs have been lost in states such as Michigan (127,000), Pennsylvania (132,500), and Ohio (151,800).

The Mississippi Basin

Finally, for all the ribbing it drew, Gore's four-day riverboat tour along the Mississippi after the Democratic convention is likely to be repeated in some fashion by the next Democratic nominee. Though Bush's campaign manager, Karl Rove, dismissed it at the time as a corny gimmick, he later changed his mind. By floating down the river Gore hit small, difficult-to-reach media markets in such key midwestern swing states as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. (He won all but Missouri.) When Rove later sought to target some of these same areas, he discovered that no airport nearby was large enough to land the Boeing 757 that served as Bush's campaign plane. "We never got Bush there," Rove lamented afterward, and he laid the blame for Gore's narrow win in Iowa on that fact.

Presented by

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In