"Swing Voters" and General Election Positioning

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"Swing Voters" and General Election Positioning

There's another brief thought I'd offer about the Third Way paper on "fairness vs. opportunity" and "independent swing voters" that I discussed earlier today. Much of its analyis is based on a poll of self-identified independents in battleground states conducted by Global Strategy Group. Among other things, this survey asks "swing independents" (defined as self-identified independents who did not express strongly favorable or unfavorable views of President Obama or Mitt Romney) to plot their own ideology on a 1-9 left-right ideological scale, and then also plot the two parties and Obama and Romney.

Putting aside all the many perils of this sort of polling, the "spectrum" question shows "swing-independents" on average perceiving themselves as closer to Romney ideologically than to Obama, but also closer to the Democratic than to the Republican Party. At the same time, Obama is perceived as very similar to his party ideolologically, while Romney is perceived as well to the left of his party. And above and beyond all these calculations, "swing independents" currently favor Obama against Romney by a 44-38 margin.

So Obama's only apparent "vulnerability" in this demographic vis a vis Romney is that Mitt is perceived as significantly more moderate than the GOP. This isn't terribly surprising given Romney's history and the time and expense that his Republican rivals have devoted to the task of labeling him as an unprincipled RINO. But Romney has been working hard to erase that perception (and will have to continue to erase it at least until Rick Santorum drops out and the GOP is suitably united), giving the Obama campaign a rich storehouse of statements and issue perceptions to exploit in the general election (as Jonathan Alter explains in some detail at Ten Miles Square today).

So why is it Obama and/or the Democratic Party that needs, according to the Third Way study, to change its message on the economy? Sure, it's always helpful to maximize one's support in any and all voter demographics. But when your opponent is caught between pressure to make his views more consistent with those of his relatively unpopular party, and his richly earned reputation as a chameleon, and you are already working from an advantage in full concert with your own party, why run the risk of changing your message, particularly if the existing message happens to coincide with what you and your party actually believe and (in the case of income inequality and the unfairness of the tax code) with the factual situation the country faces?

Look, I'm all for harvesting as much information from public opinion research as is possible, and don't think there's anything evil about responding to clear indications of what the public thinks and wants. But the advice offered in this paper really does live down to the negative reputation of Democratic "centrists" as people willing to make major concessions to conservative policy preferences in order to achieve very small advantages among very small groups of swing voters. It's not worth it morally or politically.