Swing Party!

The swing vote isn't just a story, it's a fun house, a riddle, with no penalty for guessing wrong.

According to scads of opinion polls and vast herds of think tanks, one very special group of Americans has all the power in the coming election. The fabled swing voters will again determine the outcome of the White House race.

But who are they? Given the stark choice between a Bush and a Kerry, who could possibly be undecided? America wants to know, and the media are stepping up to the job. In fact, they're stepping up to it every day, in countless creative ways and endless column inches. Using all of the latest research, plus interviews with actual swing voters, media people are busily telling us exactly who these influentially indecisive citizens are.

Sort of.

See, it turns out that swing-voter-ology is a rather inexact science. And being inexact, it lends itself to various outcomes. After following the coverage for a bit, one begins to see that, for journalists, the swing vote isn't just a story, it's a fun house, an endless parlor game, a riddle with a million possible answers and no penalty for guessing wrong. Because when it comes to swing voters, there really is no wrong.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times gave it a whirl on the front page, in an Adam Nagourney story with an Ardmore, Pa., dateline and this dramatic opening: "They are more likely to be white than black, female than male, married than single, and live in the suburbs rather than in large cities. They are not frequent churchgoers nor gun enthusiasts. They are clustered in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and here in Pennsylvania."

Swing voters live in swing states! So that's why you never meet one in Manhattan. It's all so easy.

But it isn't, really. "'Swing' Voters Unimpressed by Bush, Kerry, Poll Finds," declared a headline on the Web site of The Baltimore Sun, also in June. This story, picked up from the Los Angeles Times, was based on a poll called the National Annenberg Election Survey, which the New York Times story also cited, among other polls. Yet somehow the unimpressed-by-both angle didn't quite emerge in the New York Times story, which came after the Los Angeles Times story. Still, it makes intuitive sense: Swing voters would be malcontents, right? Like Mikey in the old cereal ad, they hate everything.

Except when they don't. Last Sunday, The New York Times took another swing at the swing-voter pinata, in a John Tierney piece that quoted pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, on that organization's recent swing-voter study. "There is still a sizable number of voters with a favorable view of both candidates," Kohut said. "The election might be close, but a candidate who did a really good job of reaching these persuadable voters could win by a gap of 5 percentage points or more."

But the real news in the Tierney piece wasn't about the swing voters feeling warmly toward the two candidates whom we'd recently been told they disliked. It was about how "a surprising number of them may be listening to Howard Stern on their way to church."

The basis for this claim was a poll by an advocacy group called the New Democratic Network. That survey had also been a source for the previous Times story, the one that mentioned the non-churchy ways of swing voters yet never touched on these highly religious Howard Stern listeners. According to the newer story, swinging Sternites "were slightly more likely than nonlisteners to call themselves born-again Christians and were three times more likely to attend church daily."

Swing voters can be sliced and diced in infinite ways. And because their vote is so important, every new cut is newsy. A lot of swing voters undoubtedly go to church, and a lot of others don't. Why say that in one story when you can say it two and make twice the news? Born-again Howard Stern fans! For the sophisticated readers of The New York Times, it's irresistible and hilarious, and Tierney gave the item a dryly comic kicker: "The pollsters did not ask why they went to church after listening to Mr. Stern, so there is no way to calculate how many were performing an act of contrition."

But is it true? Could be. Like magical characters out of Harry Potter, swing voters are forever changing their shapes and names, and you never really know what they'll be next. Once they were soccer moms, then they were NASCAR dads. More recently, they've morphed into single women, "the new, hot, trendy" swing voters of the 2004 election, according to a piece in the Chicago Tribune's RedEye edition: "Life for the single woman now is even more exciting. We're swingers—although not in the group-romp-on-the-kitchen-floor sense."

RedEye is aimed at younger readers, and here we glimpse the utility of swing voters. Being infinitely mutable, they can meet the needs of all kinds of organizations—political organizations, polling outfits, think tanks, and the news outlets that cover such groups. If you're out to pull in single women, it makes sense to report that single women are swing voters. And if you're a magazine called Fortune Small Business, an offshoot of Fortune, you report on "a fast-growing and newly influential group of swing voters being vigorously courted by both the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns." Now who would that be? Female small-business owners, of course.

Somewhere, a born-again (yet non-church-going) married (yet single), Howard Stern-loving, female, small-business-owning NASCAR dad is having a good laugh. And she's about to choose the next president.