Election 2008

undecided voters, swing votes, election 2008

How to Win Over the Swing Voters

August 15, 2008 09:42 AM
by Liz Colville
Undecided Americans, including a surprisingly partisan youth generation, will likely be the stars of the 2008 presidential election. What factors are influencing their decisions?

Coaxing Voters Down from the Fence

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Two Republicans and one independent have publicly shifted their support to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, spearheading a group called Republicans for Obama. They are James Leach, former U.S. representative from Iowa; Lincoln Chafee, former U.S. senator from Rhode Island, who became an independent last year; and Rita Hauser, a former campaign fundraiser for President George W. Bush. The move is as simple as “picking country over party,” Leach told the Wall Street Journal. He predicts that “[t]housands of other Republicans” will do the same.

Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s campaign responded by highlighting the Republican candidate’s bipartisan efforts, which was then underscored by Conn. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent and former Democrat from Connecticut. Lieberman has endorsed McCain, saying at a town hall meeting on August 12 that the candidate has always “worked across party lines to get things done.”

The Journal notes that other defecting politicians are also encouraging bipartisanship, like Jim Whitaker, Republican mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska, who told reporters, “My goal is to let Republicans have a clear understanding that their right to vote should not be restricted by party affiliation.”
But David Nather of CQ Politics observes that many of the “thin” crossover groups that appear prior to presidential elections are formed by unlikely party members—those with a voting record that had already aligned them more closely with their opposing party.

For undecided Americans outside the political arena, media coverage of the presidential candidates could be a significant deciding factor. Most recently, what many see as a lopsided amount of attention on Sen. Obama’s July trip abroad sparked a volley of commercials by both candidates’ campaigns that put “celebrity” at the center of character attacks. Media attention could decide votes for voters, suggests Erin Maher in the Daily Chronicle of Illinois.

For many swing voters, the economy is the number one concern, according to surveys released by the AARP in early August. These surveys, conducted in June and July, suggested that of swing voters, white, low- to middle-income, middle-aged women most often rank the economy as their top concern. For those polled, foreign policy was the second largest concern, and health care third.
The conflict between Russia and Georgia has provided swing voters and opportunity to speculate on the presidential candidates’ foreign policy preparedness. For many, the conflict is “a reminder that Obama is a first-term U.S. senator with no diplomatic background, while McCain may have a longer résumé, but also more of a taste for military action,” writes David Lightman of McClatchy.

While young voters may be considered easily swayed, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found in a February 2008 study that voters aged 18–29 proved to be quite partisan in the 2008 presidential primaries: “a clear majority of registered voters ages 18–29 say they are Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party while about a third identify with the Republican Party,” NBC news analyst Scott Keeter found.

Background: Swing voters are a growing group

According to American National Election Studies data from 1952–2004, more Republican and Democratic voters considered themselves independent in 2004 than in any other year, and the numbers have increased gradually since 1952. Other affiliation choices in the survey were “strong” or “weak” Democrat or Republican, “independent Independent,” and “apolitical.”

“The fastest-growing political party in the United States is no party,” Mark J. Penn wrote in the Washington Post in 2006. This growing number of independent voters “shows a radical new willingness on the part of Americans to look at individual candidates, not party slates. It is a sign of a thinking electorate, not a partisan one.”
A USA Today/Gallup poll released in June of this year suggests that even more voters are undecided in 2008 than they were in 2004, about one in four of them being classified as swing voters. “In a typical election year,” Gallup writes, “political independents and moderates are among those most likely to fall into the swing voter group. And that is the case as well this year.”

Opinions & Analysis: How the candidates can win the swing votes

Both candidates remain nebulous for many voters, says Irwin Stelzer in London’s Daily Telegraph. For Obama, Stelzer says a sense that he was “aloof” and “uncommitted” during his time in the Senate has been pored over in the media, much as McCain’s “incoherent” economic message has been a focal point of discussion.

Erin Maher, a young undecided voter, writes in Illinois’ Daily Chronicle that lopsided coverage of Obama’s appearances and speeches, particularly during his July trip to Europe and the Middle East, may lead those on the fence to “subconsciously” let the media make decisions for them. She suggests that the greatest role in informing the public about the candidates lies in the hands of the media.
Many political insiders believe that of any demographic, the single most “up for grabs” pool of voters is Hispanics. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico told USA Today that although he is an Obama supporter, Obama will “have to work hard to win [Hispanics’] trust.” Michele Martinez, a City Council member from Santa Ana, Calif., agreed, observing that an Obama event in her area garnered little applause: “There's still some sensitivity in the Latino community.”
But McCain may be no less secure in the Hispanic community. Fernando Treviño, a school board member from East Chicago, Ill., told USA Today that he would like to see McCain “state his position” on immigration. Republican officials agreed that McCain has to convince Hispanics of his stance on immigration and that he is “willing to wind down the war in Iraq.”

Reference: AARP battleground voter survey, Election 2008 resources

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