By John Hood
RALEIGH — Some partisans I know insist political allegiances are so rigid that elections have become little more than turnout contests. Whichever party gets its base out wins. Persuadable swing voters used to exist in significant numbers, they concede, but are now about as hard to find as Bigfoot.
Well, call me super-Squatchy. I still see plenty of swing voters as well as competitive elections in which they are the determining factor. And I’m not alone.
Consider last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin shocked the political world by defeating former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempted return to office. Virginia had been trending blue for many years. At the start of the race, few analysts gave Youngkin much of a chance.
They were mistaken. Now some observers, on both sides of the political aisle, have the equally mistaken view that Youngkin’s victory was a consequence of solidly Republican voters — infuriated by hot-button issues and motivated to vote against Joe Biden’s party — turning out in huge numbers while solidly Democratic voters stayed home.
Political operatives at the Democratic firm Civis knows better. After taking a close look at the election returns, they’ve concluded that voters switching their partisan preferences played a far more important role in Youngkin’s win than turnout differentials did.
That’s not to say turnout wasn’t a factor. Compared with the numbers of votes cast in the 2017 gubernatorial race, turnout was up 13% in Virginia’s deepest-red counties vs. 6% in the deepest-blue counties. Democratic participation was not depressed, in other words. It went up. Still, Republican participation went up even more.
These changes in the electorate were not sufficient to explain the outcome, however. When the Civis folks applied their models to the Virginia election totals, they produced strong evidence that quite a few voters who’d supported Biden in 2020 then opted for Youngkin the following year. Because a vote-switcher is worth twice as much to a campaign as a turned-out base voter — adding a vote in favor as well as subtracting a vote against — the behavior of swing voters proved to be decisive, accounting for about 80% of the red shift that put Youngkin into office.
Furthermore, Civis discovered that the Virginia experience was hardly a special case. In New Jersey, where Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy had been widely predicted to cruise to reelection in 2021, he nearly lost to insurgent Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli. Although the Democrats notched the win, New Jersey’s red shift was actually more dramatic than Virginia’s. And once again, the 80/20 rule applied: about a fifth of Ciattarelli’s surge was about turnout differential and four-fifths was about Biden voters opting for the Republican gubernatorial candidate.
There’s no question the population of swing voters is smaller than it used to be. When the two major parties were more ideologically diverse — with plenty of conservative Democrats in southern and midwestern states and a fair amount of center-left Republicans in the northeast and Pacific northwest — many voters felt perfectly comfortable picking Republicans for federal offices and Democrats for local ones (or vice versa).
Even as late as 2004, Republican incumbent George W. Bush won the presidential race in North Carolina with 56% of the vote at the same time Democratic incumbent Gov. Mike Easley won reelection with 56% of the vote. We’re unlikely to see that much ticket-splitting for a long time. If a jurisdiction is closely divided, however, the ticket-splitting need not be widespread to be decisive. After all, North Carolina went for both Donald Trump and Roy Cooper in 2020, though in each case by a modest margin.
Effective campaigns, then, will continue to devote substantial resources to detaching loosely affiliated voters from the other side and bringing them over by Election Day. As an advocate of elevating the public discourse, I’m glad the electoral incentives point in that direction. Treating each other as open to persuasion is a more-constructive way to argue, anyway — and a healthier way to live.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).