An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter
What if everything you think you know about politics is wrong? What if there aren’t really American swing voters—or not enough, anyway, to pick the next president? What if it doesn’t matter much who the Democratic nominee is? What if there is no such thing as “the center,” and the party in power can govern however it wants for two years, because the results of that first midterm are going to be bad regardless? What if the Democrats’ big 41-seat midterm victory in 2018 didn’t happen because candidates focused on health care and kitchen-table issues, but simply because they were running against the party in the White House? What if the outcome in 2020 is pretty much foreordained, too?
To the political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, all of that is almost certainly true, and that has made her one of the most intriguing new figures in political forecasting this year.
Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place. To her critics, she’s an extreme apostle of the old saw that “turnout explains everything,” taking a long victory lap after getting lucky one time. She sees things slightly differently: That the last few elections show that American politics really has changed, and other experts have been slow to process what it means.
The classic view is that the pool of American voters is basically fixed: About 55 percent of eligible voters are likely to go to the polls, and the winner is determined by the 15 percent or so of “swing voters” who flit between the parties. So a general election campaign amounts to a long effort to pull those voters in to your side.
Bitecofer has a nickname for this view. She calls it, with disdain, the “Chuck Todd theory of American politics”: “The idea that there is this informed, engaged American population that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment.”
“And it is just not true.”
And sometimes an event occurs that blows up those assumptions.
In Bitecofer’s experience, that event wasn’t Trump; it was the Tea Party.
Part of Bitecofer’s job involved polling Virginia, and she saw a Democratic counterwave building there in 2017. She noted to Democrats in the state that they should spend resources in areas that had traditionally been off limits. Had they done so, Bitecofer says, they could have flipped the Legislature that year. (Instead it flipped in 2019.)
When 2018 rolled around, she saw what was coming: “College educated white men, and especially college educated white women,” she said, “were going to be on fucking fire.”
It didn’t matter who was running; it mattered who was voting. From there, the model followed. She put out her forecast for the general election when there were still candidates battling it out in primaries.
Bitecofer’s view of the electorate is driven, in part, by a new way to think about why Americans vote the way they do. She counts as an intellectual mentor Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University who popularized the concept of “negative partisanship,” the idea that voters are more motivated to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals.
The percentage of people who swing in and out of the electorate is closer to 10 percent, according to his data, which couldn’t explain the massive swings some counties saw from 2012 to 2016.
As for Bitecofer’s overall theory, Wang says, “It is the detailed version of something that is generally appreciated—that over the last 20 years the big phenomenon in American politics is that Americans have become much more predictable about who they vote for,” he said.