It is easy to overlook in our era of hyper-polarized politics that not every voter is a lock-step Republican or Democrat. These “swing voters” have long been described as the ultimate deciders in elections. So who are they and who exactly are the swing voters for 2018?
The easiest answer would be those who identify as political “Independents.” These Independents are supposedly the swing voters that impact elections. Okay, well, not always. For example, in 2004, John Kerry won them by a point but lost the popular vote by three million (meaning exit polls were obviously off). In 2006 and 2008 these voters backed Democrats by double digits but in 2010, 2012 and 2014 they gave Republicans for Congress/President a 19 point, 5 point and 18 point margins. Note Republicans lost the 2012 Presidential election.
While elections can have wild swings (see the special election results year to date for examples) it is hard to believe truly “Independent” swing voters are changing their minds constantly. Rather, it depends which type of “Independent” is showing up to vote. Many Independents behave as closet partisans, routinely voting for one party over the other (or just not voting) and eschewing a party label. In recent years, this has been more common for Republicans to benefit as Independents who vote tend to lean their way. But, to be fair, there is a segment of these voters who are truly “Independent” and actually are swing voters.
For 2018, if we use the 2016/2012 Presidential election results as our reference point, the likeliest swing voters can be lumped into two categories; Romney/Clinton voters and Obama/Trump voters. Unsurprisingly, many of these voters sit in places that switched their partisan preferences for President between 2012 and 2016. These voters changing preferences also illustrate how the education divide played out to prominently in November. Trump did much better in downscale, rural areas in the Midwest then any Republican nominee since Reagan while Clinton stole traditionally GOP suburban territory by the boat-load.
Once one gets past all the noise about Trump, Democrats, and Republicans it becomes clearer the battleground districts this cycle are not in solidly red, traditional suburbs. It is true some of these districts will flip (like in NJ, CA and NY) but this was bound to happen with or without Trump. Trump has merely increased the exodus of college educated voters, particularly women, from the GOP. White college educated men have not moved since 2016.
The biggest swings this cycle have surprisingly not been in the places where Clinton did well in 2016,. By this, I mean Democrats have not over performed but rather under performed relative to Clinton in places where she made gains. Ground-zero for this would be GA-6 last year where Clinton lost the seat by one point but Karen Handel (the Republican candidate) won it by four points in the special in June. In Southern Florida where a growing Cuban-American Hispanic voting bloc is becoming more Democratic Republicans (despite losing) performed much better than Trump.
Instead, the swings have come in places where Trump did better than McCain and Romney. These places can be called “pivot counties” (voted R/D in 2012 and flipped in 2016). Think PA-18 where Trump won the county by twenty points and Connor Lamb won by a point. Or in several seats in Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan that have swung back to Democrats in legislative special elections.
There could be a couple reasons for these swings. First, in the places where Trump did much better than McCain or Romney the ancestral Democratic Party still has strong pull. For example, despite PA-18’s strong GOP lean at the federal level, the district has more registered Democrats than Republicans. In Wisconsin, rural areas which lean red are not nearly as Republican as their Western or Southern counterparts. This might also explain why a Joe Manchin is probably the best positioned Democrat to win reelection in a Trump state because of West Virginia’s down-ballot and local Democratic roots.
The polling positioning of Manchin compared to a McCaskill (MO) or Heidikamp (ND) is stark. While Missouri is much less red than West Virginia the best McCaskill can muster is a tie (she is more liberal than Manchin) while Heidikamp trails narrowly in polls against a less than stellar challenger. The most obvious reason why would likely be because Missouri and North Dakota due not have ancestral loyalty to the Democratic Party. This means when a Democrat postures as a moderate or conservative in these places it is harder for them to win the votes of moderates or conservatives simply because these voters have more of a history of say being a Republican and not a Democrat.
What does this have to do with swing voters you might ask? Well, as shown above, the biggest swings have come in Trump friendly territory. This territory encompasses the aforementioned pivot counties and are chalk full of Obama/Trump voters. These areas are more ancestrally Democratic than Republican leaning Clinton suburbs and as a result these are the places most likely to flip if Democrats focus on them.
Obama/Trump voters are primarily white, working class voters. They fit the stereotype of the average GOP voter but a significant segment of them does not harbor loyalty to the party. Rather, it seems, they are populist in nature and behave to curb the worst natures of either party. They are drawn to candidates who eschew party labels and focus more on being outsiders yet promising to work within the system. This worked well for Trump but not necessarily the GOP as a party.
With Democrats likely to make gains in three states (NY, NJ and CA) and solidify their gains will affluent, college educated whites (ie. Romney/Clinton voters or Independents/Moderates) the battle for the House will likely be fought in districts that don’t have ancestral loyalty to the GOP but are currently represented by Republicans in Congress and among voters who have no particular loyalty to the GOP. These districts, while demographically similar, largely white and blue-collar, are geographically diverse. Maybe Trump can help among these voters. But, if elections this year to date have been any indication probably not. GOP candidates will have to win over Obama/Trump voters on their own terms.