By David Hill - 06/21/06 12:00 AM EDT
The Boston campus of Northeastern University was the setting the Saturday before last for a symposium on swing voters. This was an opportunity for representatives of the major tracking polls of 2004 — Gallup, Pew and Annenberg — to compare and contrast their results from the last election systematically.
One important notion that emerged was that a lot of swing voters are relatively sophisticated and issue-driven.
This conclusion was not universal. Many researchers still see swing voters in a less favorable light, characterizing them as personality- or image-driven or even as know-nothings.
This diversity in deductions may spring, in part, from the many definitions of swing voters. Some studies classify them as those who move between parties across the years; others characterize swing voters as nonpartisans, late deciders or ticket-splitters in a single election.
I have always been convinced that a significant number of sophisticated swing voters are strategic ticket-splitters. I first took note of these voters in the Midwest during the mid-1980s. Farm-state voters who were unhappy with the Reagan administration’s agriculture policies simply could not bring themselves to vote for the whole GOP ticket, as they might once have done. They needed to target a race where they would support a Democrat.
The psychological strategy behind this is complex and diverse. For some voters, it may have been little more than casting a protest vote: “I’m mad at Reagan, so I’m going to vote against one of his Republican senators.” For others, it may not have been quite so retrospective and vengeful. Forward-looking ticket-splitters might have been thinking that some Madisonian checks and balances would serve as a restraint on future changes in GOP farm policies. Other swing voters are not as purposive and probably are better described as conflict-avoiders who select candidates from each party to achieve a sense of cognitive balance.
A particularly interesting state for observing split-ticket voting this November will be Pennsylvania. And the best county to watch is Montgomery, a suburban enclave in the southeastern part of the state.
There has already been hard evidence in this cycle that Montgomery is going to experience significant ticket-splitting, just as in 2004 when majorities there voted both for Democrat John Kerry for president and Republican Arlen Specter for the U.S. Senate.
Before the Keystone State’s recent party-primary elections, voters were already switching sides. Of the previously registered voters in Montgomery County, 1,193 moved to the Democrats and 684 shifted to the Republicans, but what’s most tantalizing is that even more voters, 2,272, reregistered as independents. If that’s not a heavy lean toward split-ticket voting, I don’t know what would be. While the numbers are relatively small, they may be the visible tip of a giant iceberg that can sink ships of both parties.
Many of these swing voters will embrace the Senate campaign of Democrat Bob Casey, who is heavily pushing a “new direction” message that plays to the palpable “wrong track” sentiment in the state. But if these independent-minded voters choose Casey, then they can’t also vote to reelect Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell. That would violate the code of the ticket splitter.
So it is possible that Republican gubernatorial nominee Lynn Swann could become the inadvertent beneficiary of GOP Sen. Rick Santorum’s losses. Factor in Swann’s choice of Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews to be his running mate and you can see Rendell losing his fat margins in this important swing county, one key to his 2002 victory.
Though the national polls will miss it, local situations like this are worthy of careful study if we are to untangle the mysteries of swing voters.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.