It’s the Partisans, Stupid

Lynn VavreckYesterday, I wrote about Lynn Vavreck’s excellent book The Message Matters. In my discussion, I focused on how, Campaign Messages Don’t Matter to Media. But there were other issues that I took note of. Toward the beginning of the book, she noted that campaigns don’t matter to either the high or low information voter. The high information voter already has a narrative for the candidates and the low information voter isn’t paying attention at all and will just go with retroactive voting based upon the economy. It is the group in the middle who can be affected by campaign messages.

This last week, Vavreck wrote an article along these lines at the excellent The Upshot blog at The New York Times, The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections. She noted something that people around here should know: the vast majority of people side with one or the other big parties and when it comes time for voting, they vote the way they always do. From a practical standpoint, it means that the question is not how people vote but who votes.

In the article, she highlights what happened in 2010. This too should come as no surprise. I’ve long ranted about the ridiculous idea that the 2010 election indicated that the voters were unhappy about Obama; I’ve always said it was simply that a large chunk of Obama’s voting base didn’t show up. But I was still shocked by this chart:

Comparison of Voting 2008 and 2010

What this shows is that only 6% of the electorate switched sides and they did it about evenly. Slightly more people switched their votes from Democrat to Republican because there were more Obama voters in 2008. But the difference is very small. The midterm problem was not liberals seeing Obama in action and running to vote for Allen West. It’s that 11% of the people who showed up to vote for Obama didn’t show up to vote against Allen West.

Vavreck sums it up well:

It may seem hard to believe that the shellacking was more about who turned up than about who changed their minds between 2008 and 2010, but it lines up with a lot of other evidence about voters’ behavior. Most identify with the same political party their entire adult lives, even if they do not formally register with it. They almost always vote for the presidential candidate from that party, and they rarely vote for one party for president and the other one for Congress…

The 2014 fight is not over swing voters. It’s for partisans.

To see why this is bad, all you have to do is look at the House of Representatives. But there is good news in this fact: Democrats win elections by default if voter turnout is high. So Democrats don’t need to do their constant dance to the right to impress swing voters, because there really aren’t any there to get. And the party seems to have finally woken up to this fact and is putting more focus on “get out the vote” efforts.

Probably the best thing that any person can do politically is to encourage others to vote and to help others vote. And of course the most basic thing you can do—the thing that really ought to be a requirement for citizenship—is vote yourself. Sadly, that is something many of my liberal friends can’t even be bothered to do. We get bad government here in the United States not so much because of conservative voters but because of liberals who do not vote.

The General Election is on 4 November 2014. That’s six months and one week away. I’ll be reminding you as we get closer.


In a broader sense, I wish people would stop referring to America as a “center right” nation. That’s a pretty odd claim. If you talk to Americans about issues, they come down as decidedly liberal—especially on economic issues. If you ask them all what their opinions are on parties, they come down decidedly as Democratic. The only way that America is a center right nation is in the sense that we make it hard for people to vote; so when few people show up at the polls, they tend to be center right. But that isn’t the people in a general sense. That’s just decades in which the oligarchs have manipulated our democracy.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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