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Election 2004: The Swing Vote

A tiny fraction of voters will decide America’s fate in November. They like country music, they work way too hard — and they don’t care about politics

Crowd, native American, Kerry, Campaign, supporters

Crowd of native American Kerry Campaign supporters outside with signs in Gallup, NM in 2004.

Visions of America/UIG via Getty

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:

Joe Six-Pack
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?”

Education Firsters
These working, married, suburban women are better off than most Swingers, don’t care for politics and want the candidate who will do best by their kids. “This is a group that, on the issue that matters most to them, are extremely up for grabs,” says Karen White, political director of the pro-choice group Emily’s List. When Bush crows about No Child Left Behind or Kerry dons one of his signature pastel ties and details his college tax-credit plan, they’re zeroing in on this swing bloc, which is notoriously hard to get to the polls.

The Baby Killers
Veterans have traditionally gone Republican, and polls show Bush capturing fifty-four percent of their vote. But Kerry hopes to swing them based on his record in Vietnam, Bush’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the president’s failure to fund veterans’ programs. In June, Kerry kicked off a campaign in Minnesota to sign up 1 million vets to help him get out the vote. Vietnam vets could prove especially crucial. “You watched as Kerry won each of those primaries,” says Zogby. “Those gray-haired gentlemen with that look in their eyes: ‘God, thirty-five years ago we were considered baby killers, and now one of us is running for president.’ ” The Swift-boat smear campaign against Kerry was geared to help Bush contest this vital demographic.

Hispanic Immigrants
“The most important swing group in American politics today is the Latin American immigrant,” says pollster Sergio Bendixen, who recently completed the largest-ever survey of battleground Hispanics. These Swingers, he says, are first-generation immigrants who have been in the U.S. less than twenty-five years. With little party loyalty, they’re prone to dramatic voting shifts. They like Bush personally but are receptive to Kerry’s talk about boosting the minimum wage. And they could tip as many as five states: Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida. In the Sunshine State, there are 400,000 non-Cuban (that is to say, non-Republican) Latino immigrant votes up for grabs, mostly in Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. In Nevada, the campaigns are focusing on service workers around Las Vegas, and in New Mexico they’re targeting Hispanic communities on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. “This is the first election in American history where both parties are in a full-scale battle royale for the Hispanic vote,” says Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, who estimates that both sides will spend at least $15 million on Spanish-language television advertising.

Naderites
If Ralph Nader takes even a fraction of the vote, it could swing the election to Bush: Fifty-eight percent of Nader supporters would otherwise back Kerry, while only twenty-two percent would choose Bush. “Where could Nader have an impact?” asks Zogby. “Anywhere it’s close. Take a New Mexico or New Hampshire or Florida. One scintilla of the vote that he got in 2000 could swing a state this time around.” Last time, Nader drew five percent of the vote in Maine and nearly tipped Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota to Bush. This time the Nader vote may be less the pissed-off Green of Y2K and more the Ross Perot type of 1992. But one Democratic strategist confesses that Kerry hasn’t pinpointed potential Nader voters. “The Democrats look at the cost of a Nader poll and say, ‘Holy shit, we can’t do that,”‘ the strategist says. “It’s all supposition.”

Zell Miller Democrats and Arlen Specter Republicans
The national parties have evolved over the years, but not all the voters have re-registered to reflect the shift. Bush is trying to swing old-school Southern Democrats who identify with Zell Miller, the Georgia senator who gave the keynote at the Republican National Convention. Democratic strategists fear their impact in Florida, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Kerry is meanwhile wooing upper-middle-class moderates in the suburbs of Philadelphia who, like their senator Arlen Specter, are at odds with an increasingly Southern and evangelical Gop. They turned out for Gore in 2000, and they could go for Kerry in 2004. 

Nascar Dads
Southern white men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five are solidly in the Republican base, but Kerry hopes to swing those disgruntled about the economy in states such as Missouri and West Virginia. With his quarterback’s arm and Harley-riding bravado, Kerry is sporty enough to appeal to these men. But he’ll have to do better than his patrician one-liner offered up at a recent campaign stop: “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?”

It’s one thing, of course, to identify swing voters, and another thing to persuade them to vote for you. In an election this tight, even the most trivial advantage may prove crucial. While Bush has leveraged cultural issues such as gay marriage to his advantage, he may come to regret one of his many salvos in the culture war. Of all the enemies Bush has made in three-plus years in office, his most dangerous foe may prove to be none other than Howard Stern, who after his tussles with the Bush administration over indecency has become an anti-Dubya crusader.

Who cares? As it turns out, Swingers do. When white Swingers aren’t listening to country music on the radio, a lot of them are listening to Howard Stern. “Stern is reaching one out of every six swing voters in the country,” says Rosenberg, citing one of the New Democrat Network’s most surprising poll results. “I think it’s safe to say that Howard Stern is going to have a major impact on this election. Which, you know — who knew?”

In This Article: Coverwall, Election 2004

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