The Swing Voters in the Culture War

Persuadable people are out there, if Democrats just know where to look.

An illustration showing ballots being submitted and "I Voted" stickers
The Atlantic; Getty

Last month, Michigan state Senator Mallory McMorrow became an overnight sensation in progressive circles. After a colleague accused her of trying to “groom and sexualize kindergartners,” McMorrow delivered a raw and emotional speech that neither shied away from progressive social stances nor consented to fighting the battle on that territory. “People who are different are not the reason that our roads are in bad shape after decades of disinvestment or that health-care costs are too high or that teachers are leaving the profession,” she said.

James Carville, the famed Democratic strategist and critic of liberal focus on social issues, gushed that it was an “enormously effective piece of communication,” adding, “There’s really no comeback to it.” In The New Yorker, David Remnick anointed her “a role model for the midterms.” The rapturous response to McMorrow’s speech underscores the Democratic Party’s struggle to find a reply to Republicans in this election cycle and the perilous environment its candidates face.

New polling data from Navigator, a progressive firm, released today, show that Democrats start at a deficit on culture-war issues, but that people exist who might be described as potential Mallory McMorrow voters. They are the swing voters in the culture war, and they are disproportionately young, moderate, white, and parents.

To produce the data, Navigator asked a sample of voters whether Republicans were focused on the right or wrong issues. A plurality, 47 percent, said Republicans were focused on the right things; 44 percent said they were not. Next, respondents were asked about a series of GOP policy initiatives, including book bans in schools and libraries, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, and overturning Roe v. Wade. (The survey was done before a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked last week.) Then pollsters asked once again whether Republicans were focused on the right or wrong issues. This time, 52 percent said they were focused on the wrong issues, and 42 on the right ones.

For years, voters have tended to trust Republicans more on economic issues, and to see Democrats as the party of social issues such as racial equality and LGBTQ rights. That’s a particular problem for Democrats heading into the midterm elections, because they’re the party in power and voters are reeling under high inflation and a suddenly shaky economy.

The problem is somewhat ironic. Democrats have been intensely focused on the economy; they just haven’t managed to get the results they want. Joe Biden began his term with a huge infrastructure bill, and his party has been trying (and failing) to pass a second economic package ever since. At the same time, Republican governments in red states have been waging a vigorous culture war, exemplified by Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and attempt at punitive tax changes against Disney. National Republican leaders, too, have declined to present any economic agenda, following the old dictum of never interfering when your opponent is making a mistake.

More intriguing than the reversal of views on GOP policies is the profile of the voters who changed their view. They are more likely to identify as moderate than the general electorate (46 versus 34 percent). More of them are white women (42 versus 36 percent). They are more likely to have graduated high school than the general population, but only 30 percent of them are college educated, and they are more likely to make less than $50,000 a year. Many of them are parents—39 percent versus 27 percent—and they are more likely to identify as pro-choice.

In short, these aren’t the college-educated, relatively comfortable suburban women with whom the Democratic Party has made inroads the past few election cycles. These people are likely to be squeezed hard by inflation, and they may also be among the voters most frustrated by school closures during the pandemic. “These are not Whole Foods moms, but Sam’s Club moms or Costco moms,” says Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Erickson told me that Third Way research found that voters in Virginia who voted for Biden in 2020 and then switched to the successful Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in 2021 resembled the swing bloc here: lots of suburban parents and non-college-educated women, of all races. They didn’t necessarily buy into a panic about “critical race theory” being taught in schools, but they did feel that Democrats were looking at the wrong issues.

If they voted, their opposition to GOP culture-war issues might make them vote Democratic, and they are a big enough group to make a significant difference in election results. Navigator’s polling found that they opposed the signature Republican culture-war priorities by wider margins than the general population, often 15 to 20 percentage points. Republican leaders have mostly avoided policy proposals ahead of the midterms, but Navigator asked about economic policies proposed by Senator Rick Scott and found that this subset of the population overwhelmingly disliked those too. But many of them aren’t voting: Only 59 percent of the group voted in 2020, versus 71 percent of the overall electorate.

This group of voters who might not otherwise cast a ballot and don’t like Republican ideas is an opportunity for Democrats, says Bryan Bennett, Navigator’s lead pollster. “Progressives need to be going on offense: ‘They’re not focused on lowering costs. They’re focused on banning books in your children’s schools.’”

But Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, told me that in his view, the findings are less than meets the eye. The fact that these voters are less engaged in politics makes them more susceptible to changing their mind in a closed polling situation.

“It’s clearly downplaying many of the least popular things that a bunch of progressive Democrats are talking about and zeroing in on some of the least popular things that Republicans are talking about,” he said. “I could very easily flip the tables on this by talking about how the GOP is focused on securing our border, bringing down inflation, and keeping schools open, but Dems want to defund the police and pass a gigantic social-welfare package.”

That may be true, but the new focus on Roe has galvanized abortion advocates and may have aided Democrats by thrusting conservative culture-war priorities into the center of political debate. Even so, progressives are still likely to struggle to seize the opportunity. In the real world, Democrats are not known for their message discipline. At the moment, for example, two factions of the party are engaged in a drawn-out battle over student-loan forgiveness, even though student debt barely registers in opinion polls.

Beyond that, if elected Democrats start talking about unpopular Republican social policies, they risk reinforcing the idea that they are focused on social policies rather than economic ones. Candidates will be looking in part to outside groups to take up the banner. “This is our job, to make these stakes very clear to voters heading into the fall. They want to talk about banning books and banning birth control and banning democracy, and we have a plan to rein in greedy CEOs,” Nita Chaudhary, the chief of program at the progressive group MoveOn, told me. She and her allies will have their work cut out for them.