Swing voters: Diverse, misunderstood and crucial in 2012

Over the next eight months, presidential campaigns will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to penetrate the suburban living rooms of people like 33-year-old Sarah Hays.

“I agree with certain parts of the philosophies of both parties,” Hays said in a recent interview as two of her three children — ages 6, 4 and 21 months — played within reach at their St. Louis-area home. “I’m a Catholic, and I’m pro-life, and that’s very important to me,” she said, “but I don’t believe that pro-life means only antiabortion.

“I think we should be fiscally conservative, and yet I think we should take care of people.”

Hays is that rarest of people in a closely divided and sharply polarized country — a swing voter — dissatisfied with both parties, crucial to either one’s hope of success.


Over the last few months, as the Republican primary battle has focused on the most conservative parts of the party’s core, several polls have shown President Obama making headway with self-described independents like Hays. As a result, the percentage of voters expressing approval of his performance in office has slowly risen in most recent surveys.

The latest major poll, released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows Obama’s job approval — probably the most important political statistic at this time of year — at 50%, with 41% disapproving. That’s a significant improvement over the same poll’s finding in January, when Obama’s approval was a net negative, 44% to 48%. The more recent poll, of 1,503 adults, including 1,188 registered voters, was taken March 7 through Sunday, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey also showed a notable improvement in the Democratic Party’s image among voters, with just under half seeing the party positively. The public’s overall view of the Republican Party was strikingly negative, 36% to 56%.

Though the polls could certainly change again, recent interviews with voters in swing states show that arguments favorable to Obama have begun to sink in with some of those he will need in November.

Such swing voters are a crucial — and often misunderstood — piece of the American electorate.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of U.S. voters calling themselves “strong” partisans sat at a historically low ebb. Since 1980, strong partisanship has swung back upward, from barely 1 in 5 voters to about 1 in 3, according to data from the American National Election Studies, a project of Stanford University and the University of Michigan. Those strong partisans on either side dominate political debate.

That still leaves aside two-thirds of the electorate. The biggest chunk — some 40% of voters — are those who tell pollsters that they consider themselves “independent.” Entire books as well as reams of punditry have seized on that figure, depicting independents as a huge swing bloc or even a potential army of voters for a centrist third party.

No such army exists. Far from a uniform band of centrists, the independent label covers everyone from anti-corporate pacifists on the left to tea party activists on the right. Most lean toward one party or the other, and their voting patterns can be nearly as partisan as anybody else’s, notes Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center.

Including the independents who lean to one side or the other, the two parties have battled to rough parity. That’s why strategists in both parties expect this presidential election to end up close. The vast majority of voters have fixed views about Obama that even significant events won’t change.

“Ten to 15% of the voters will decide this election,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. Those “persuadable” voters, as political strategists call the slice of weak partisans and independents who can be swayed, tend not to follow politics closely and make up their minds late.

Each side’s goal is to sway as many as possible of those voters while boosting turnout among their own partisans. Some of those voters will take a stand after the party conventions. The last holdouts typically wait until the autumn presidential debates.

Unlike the last three incumbents who lost their reelection bids — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter andGeorge H.W. Bush — Obama has been able to get a head start on those tasks because he has had no significant challenge from within his party. Among the campaign’s targets have been women, particularly older suburbanites, and blue-collar whites in battleground states — a group that swung heavily against Democrats in the 2010 election.

Recent polls in key states have shown Obama’s progress on both those fronts. Interviews with independent voters help show why. The voters, interviewed by phone, were among respondents to polls conducted in Pennsylvania by Muhlenberg College and the Allentown Morning Call and nationally by the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research polling firm.

Nearly all those interviewed mentioned some degree of disappointment with the president — a sign of his continued vulnerability.

But many voters spontaneously mentioned lines that have been Obama campaign talking points. In northern Florida, Diane Cusson-Maddox, 58, a rural mail carrier who voted for RepublicanSen. John McCain in 2008, said she admired Obama’s toughness.

“I think he’s trying to help the people who are in the middle class and make the rich pay more because they’ve been on a gravy train,” she said.

Asked why she voted against Obama four years ago, she hesitated.

“I didn’t believe a lot of what he said,” she said of Obama, then, after a pause, continued: “It could be because I’m from the South, you know what I mean? It could be that I thought a black man couldn’t handle the job. It could have been some prejudice I had.”

In Pennsylvania, George Steidler, 81, also said he voted for McCain, but this time he sees no Republican worth supporting. He dismissed Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ halting front-runner, with a verbal back of his hand.

“When you make $15 million, and pay 14% tax, what good’s that to the American people who pay their taxes?”

In Maine, Julie Jipson expressed admiration for her state’s moderate Republican senator, Olympia J. Snowe, who is retiring this year, then scorned what she described as a Republican “attack on women.”

“I’m 62 years old, and I’m thinking, ‘My God, we’re going back to when my mother was little,’ ” having a public argument about birth control, she said. “It’s just out of control. They’re so radical.”

As for Hays, she too spoke of her “disappointment” with Obama, for whom she voted four years ago. The healthcare bill that Obama sees as the signal accomplishment of his term leaves her not so much opposed as just puzzled and anxious.

“I don’t think things are being explained terribly well to people,” she said. And the “great hopes” Obama raised in his campaign have largely been eroded in her mind.

She was open to finding a Republican to vote for this time, Hays said. But asked about the current field, she laughed.

“I couldn’t see myself voting for any of these guys,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one of them who isn’t completely crazy.”