California is irrelevant. Texas — no importa. New York? Fuhgedaboudit.
“John Lennon could rise from the dead” and throw a pro-Bush benefit concert in Central Park, says Republican strategist Frank Luntz, “and it’s still not going to get Bush New York’s electoral vote.”
Thanks to the Electoral College, the ballots cast in the nation’s three most populous states in November will hardly matter.
Victory — John Kerry’s in California and New York, George W. Bush’s in Texas — is a foregone conclusion. And it’s not just those three states. It’s more like three dozen. Both of the campaigns have done the math: All told, some 100 million Americans are expected to vote in November. As many as ninety-five percent of them have already made up their minds – and only half of the remaining five percent live in the battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania that are still up for grabs. “That leaves only 2.5 million voters that matter,” Luntz says. In other words, Bush and Kerry are devoting almost all of their resources — more than $400 million — to court a group of voters smaller than the combined populations of Philadelphia and San Diego. These are the tossups. The persuadables. The Swingers. Never has the fate of America — and the world at large — depended so much on the votes of so few.
Even more alarming, the most important voters in this most important election are the ones least interested in politics. Swingers are less than half as likely as declared voters to be following the campaign. Fifty percent confess that they’re paying “not much attention” or “no attention,” and forty percent say they “never” talk politics with family or friends. Before they can persuade the Swingers, “the campaigns have to get them interested,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, who directed a survey of swing voters. “Then they have to keep them interested so they go out and vote.”
So who are the Swingers? According to the Annenberg survey and polls by the centrist New Democrat Network, most are white, married strivers who haven’t yet made it. Half earn less than $50,000. More than a third have young children, and seventy percent have aging parents. They’re worried about affording college for their kids and saving for retirement. Their “workaholic” rating is off the charts — three times that of Democrats, close to double that of Republicans. They listen to country music. And they’re electoral procrastinators. “Most of these people stay undecided right up to the end,” says Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush-Cheney’ 04.
While Swingers are everywhere, many live in small cities such as Hannibal, Missouri, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. You’ll also find them in the booming suburbs of Las Vegas and Phoenix, or just off Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando — a region so chockablock with swing voters that one Democratic strategist has dubbed it the “cockpit of the 2004 election.”
On paper, Swingers look like Kerry voters. Only one in four thinks the country is heading in the right direction, and half say we should get out of Iraq. Most believe Kerry would do a better job than Bush at creating jobs (a twenty-nine-point advantage) and providing opportunity (a whopping forty points). “We were startled by those numbers,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. “It is clear that swing voters fundamentally don’t believe Bush is a guy who is getting up every day thinking about how their lives are going to get better.” But Swingers view Bush as a “strong leader” in a time of crisis, and they believe he’s the best candidate to protect America from another terrorist attack (plus thirty-two points). They also tend to side with him on late-term abortions and gay marriage.
The one thing that swing voters know for certain is that they don’t like either candidate. “They can give you a good minute and a half — an earful — about why they don’t like George W. Bush,” says Luntz, who has conducted focus groups with 1,000 undecided voters. “So then you ask them, ‘Who are you voting for? Kerry?’ And they’ll say, ‘Kerry?!? Give me a break!’ And then they give you a minute and a half about why Kerry stinks. They’re the Dennis Miller of 2004. They can rant against everybody at any time.”
Both Bush and Kerry have spent the summer making shameless passes at the Swingers, targeting the same voters in the same towns — sometimes even on the same day. In early August, the campaigns collided in Davenport, Iowa, only to cross paths again nine days later in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. Both campaigns have crisscrossed Ohio, a state so evenly divided and rich in electoral votes that strategists are already calling it “the New Florida.” Bush has stumped the Buckeye State at least twenty times since becoming president; Kerry has made nearly a dozen visits since March. As the two candidates march across the presidential battleground, they’re tailoring their messages to appeal to these key voting blocs:
Both campaigns are targeting blue-collar workers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which have lost a combined 530,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office. While Bush boasts about the improving national economy, the recovery hasn’t yet reached these workers. Kerry is trying to turn anger over the economy into a movement to “outsource Bush” — particularly in places such as Canton, Ohio, where one of the president’s major backers is laying off 1,300 factory workers. “It’s a test of messages,” says pollster John Zogby. “Will Bush win on cultural stuff among blue-collar workers? Or will Kerry carry the day on the basis of off-shoring and the economy?”