Base Vote vs. Swing Vote: Two Studies Weigh In

After President George W. Bush successfully secured reelection in 2004, Karl Rove was credited as the architect of the campaign’s underlying strategy of winning not by persuading “swing voters”, but rather by rallying the Republican base.

Having just lost the last three national elections, Democratic strategists and activists entered into a debate as to whether their party should emulate the Rove strategy, and focus on building the Democratic base, or instead concentrate on wooing the voters in the middle of the political spectrum.  Two recently released studies, one national and one of Colorado voters, offer data in support of both sides of the debate.Denver based Democratic political consulting firm RBI Strategies and Research recently released a report that analyzes the Democratic successes in 2006 in Colorado.  Their findings are based on a review of election results, telephone surveys conducted by RBI, and media exit polls.  They specifically note in their report:

For the first time in at least 20 years Colorado Democratic performance was above 50%.  The victories at every level were the product of not only good candidates and well-run campaigns, but an underlying shift within the Colorado electorate back to its pre-1994 status.

As the RBI report highlights, support for the Democratic candidate for CU Regent-At-Large, a race with limited media coverage and very little campaign spending, and thus a good indicator of base Democratic support, reached 50.1% in 2006.  RBI estimates base Democratic support from 1994 to 2002 as averaging 41%, with a jump to 49.7% in 2004.

“Between Salazar in 2004 and Ritter in 2006, the image of Democrats in Colorado is changing” Craig Hughes, director of research at RBI concludes, adding, “Just as importantly, the image of Republicans is cratering.”

To back up his finding, Hughes points to a statewide survey conducted by RBI on behalf of the non-partisan Colorado Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Action Fund.  The survey was conducted with 650 voters statewide.

When asked to choose between a range of issues discussed in the campaign, 27% of voters picked “immigration,” 21% chose the “economy,” and 18% pointed to “education,” while 11% said “energy,” 9% favored “health care,” and only 6% went with “water.”  Among those voters focused on every issue category, more voters trusted Ritter on that issue than former Congressman Bob Beauprez.  The study also found Ritter beat Beauprez among unaffiliated voters by a 3-to-1 margin, and won the Western Slope by over 20 points as well.

While Democrats were successful in winning races up and down the ticket in 2006, they made less progress in boosting their base.  Registered Republicans in Colorado continue to outnumber registered Democrats in the state by more than 150,000 voters.  Unaffiliated voters continue to outnumber both Democrats and Republicans on the voter rolls.

Last week, Emory political science professor Alan Abramowitz and Austin journalist Bill Bishop came to a different conclusion about the lessons to be learned from the 2006 Election, based on a national online survey of 24,000 voters, as published in a Washington Post article

While the validity of online surveys is generally considered suspect, Abramowitz and Bishop note that the survey was commissioned by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a coalition of 30 research teams from universities across the country. Abramowitz and Bishop also point out that the results of the survey almost perfectly matched the nationwide results of the election, namely 54% voted for a Democrat and 46% voted for a Republican.  In addition to asking voters for whom they voted, researchers asked voters their positions on 14 different issues, such as abortion, stem cell research, global warming, health insurance, and the minimum wage.  The authors further report:

When we combined voters’ answers to the 14 issue questions to form a liberal-conservative scale (answers were divided into five equivalent categories based on overall liberalism vs. conservatism), 86 percent of Democratic voters were on the liberal side of the scale while 80 percent of Republican voters were on the conservative side. Only 10 percent of all voters were in the center. The visual representation of the nation’s voters isn’t a nicely shaped bell, with most voters in the moderate middle. It’s a sharp V.

With 86% of Democratic voters falling on one side of the political divide, and 80% of Republicans falling on the other, boosting turnout of Democratic issue voters by only 10% would then boost support for Democratic candidates more than by shifting the swing vote from 50% D/50% R to 60% D/40% R.

With data from the 2006 Election unable to provide resolution to the Base vs. Swing debate, perhaps resolution can be found in 2008?

Note: Mark Mehringer is President of Research for Change, Inc., which also performs public opinion research for Democratic campaigns and thus is a competitor of RBI Strategies and Research.

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Mark Mehringer

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