For months, pundits and the press have been peddling an obviously misguided theory of the American electorate: that all the voters have chosen one side or the other and thus there are almost no swing voters left. But a funny thing has happened. Since July the presidential horse race in public polls has gone from as much as an 8-point Kerry lead to as much as a 13-point Bush lead and is back again to a close race.
The reality is that for months about a quarter of the electorate has been unsure of its choice for president, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of partisan advertising and rhetoric, that quarter remains in play. The recent controversy over how many Democrats or Republicans are in public polls has obscured the fact that the largest party in America is no party — a plurality of American voters self-identify as independents, and they are the voters who will decide the election.
Why are the pundits so wrong? Because they bought into what people in both camps had a very real interest in selling. Liberals and conservatives wanted their respective candidates to believe that appealing to swing voters was ideologically weak, unprincipled and ineffective. They wanted to convince their candidates that the path to victory was to tack to the right or the left, thereby validating their own agendas on Election Day.
One result was that President Bush, who had at least run with a centrist moniker in 2000, took positions opposing popular stem cell research, pushing constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and adopting far-out economic ideas such as cutting taxes on dividends. After his support declined to the low 40s, Bush woke up to the reality that swing voters were in play and presented a more centrist front at the Republican convention, which featured John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani.
After winning the Democratic primaries by knocking out the more liberally positioned Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry had a large lead and emphasized his long-standing centrist views, pointing out that he voted for welfare reform and balanced budgets despite opposition within the Democratic Party. The image of the Democratic Party soared.
But after Bush changed his campaign tactics to tack back toward the center, Kerry believed his drop in the polls could be fixed by adding more "edge" to his message. He moved to make his opposition to Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign message, a message with tremendous appeal to the Democratic base but whose appeal to swing voters is uncertain. Now there is a renewed opportunity to win back this group of voters who report that they have already definitely decided their vote, but who have repeatedly changed their minds this year.
Who are the voters swinging back and forth? They are the very ones we identified in 1996 as the most important group of swing voters: middle-aged white women. In polling we conducted for the New Democrat Network in late May, these voters were split nearly evenly between Kerry and Bush, but by September, Bush led this group by 28 percentage points.
These modern moms work, have kids and live in the suburbs. They are not concerned about party labels, Vietnam service records or the National Guard. They are voting on the basis of what they think will be best for the future of their families. Forty-seven percent of these voters believe security is the most important issue — a reversal from late May, when 50 percent said the economy was most important and only 28 percent named security. It is not too late to turn them around again.
We might all learn a lesson from Bill Clinton in 1992. He won by making the Persian Gulf War irrelevant to the election. He focused on swing voters, with plans for welfare reform and middle-class tax cuts, and he drove the economy, not the war, as the central defining issue. In 1996 he focused on a plan to balance the budget and cruised to a landslide victory.
So what will it take to win these swing voters? A tough approach to terrorism is a prerequisite, but what will bring them back is a focus on their families, the ballooning deficits and a vision for curing the domestic ills of this country. (This is where Bush is weakest.) And above all, it will require a positive approach. These voters are looking for ideas, not insults.
With the dramatic twists and turns in the polls establishing that the swing voter is alive and well, winning this election will depend much less than people think on revving up the base and much more on who gains the confidence of these savvy independent voters. The good news for Democrats is that the latest signals from the Kerry campaign indicate that they may now be pivoting to target these voters for the homestretch.
Mark J. Penn heads a Democratic polling firm and conducted polls for President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.