There are swinging voters, and swinging voters

August 14, 2010

I read an article about what makes a swinging voter and questioned how they made up their mind which way to vote.

One of the comments on the article was by a purported swinging voter wrote about how they made up their mind:

As a swinging voter myself, I am neither influenced by handouts, nor swayed by smear campaigns. I have a whole list of issues which are important to me, some more than others. My decision will be made on balance of policy, long-term track record, and evidence of personal convictions and values which are as similar to my own as possible. This way, my elected representative is more likely to negotiate on issues as similarly to me in the same discussion as possible, guided by similar values.

From my experience, there is not just one kind of swinging voter, but several.

In my view, the notion of a rational, self-interested swinging voter who assesses the parties policies like two competing brands of toilet bowl cleaner claims about whiter bowls and 99% germ protection, simply don’t exist.

The commenter quoted above, from the sounds of things (and I have no way of knowing other than gut feeling) has likely made up their mind well before the poll – probably even before the election was called. The idea of being a “swinging voter” may just be a way to internally justify their decision of who they are supporting, and since they don’t have any strong ideological or political connection to the party they have come to support, they justify it on the grounds of “making a decision on balance of policy, long-term track record, etc”. These people may see being a swinging voter as a kind of political virtue.

Swinging voters to me appear to be people who from one election to another change which party they vote for. They do not feel strongly wedded to a political party, and they are fundamentally uninterested in politics.

The “real” swing voter – the one that the political parties are trying to capture – are very disengaged from the political process, and who have no connection to a party. There are many politically disengaged people who just automatically vote Labor or Liberal when it comes to election time. But there is a significant section of the voting public who don’t pay any attention whatsoever to politics and make up their mind some time in the last week of the election – possibly even the day before or the day of the poll itself. These swing voters are so disengaged that they often lack the most basic knowledge of the electoral process or information about the parties – for example, I’ve heard people (seriously) say, “Tony Abbott? He’s the Labor one, right?” It is often impossible to influence how these people vote – which is why I suppose so much attention is paid to the parties’ how to vote cards on election day.

Other “swing” voters are “protest voters” – who normally support one or another of the major parties but for whatever reason (generally one or two specific policy announcements) have decided to “send a message” by voting for a minor party. Historically, this is where a significant chunk of Greens Party votes have come from – both Labor and Liberals registering a protest vote on issues like refugees, climate change or gay marriage. However, these aren’t really swinging voters, because their second preference is typically “locked in”.

I was reading about some research recently about swing voters that suggested that there was also a group of swing voters who “vote against” the favourite. This is the “underdog effect” – where voters with no strong affiliation will vote against the candidate who is perceived to be the likely winner. There is also a subset of people who always vote against the incumbent government.

Finally, there are swinging voters who are self interested, but not in a rational way – that is, they don’t seek out all the facts and weigh them up before making their decision. They vote based on the limited information that seeps through into their daily lives, which often may be filled with disinformation. Similarly, they will often have one or two important policies that will affect their decision – such as interest rates, private school funding, boat people and immigration, or disability care (if they are a primary carer). Thus, in the last week of the election, as their minds turn to who they will vote for, they will take an impression of which party services their policy area “the best”.

Ultimately, I think the art of identifying a swinging voter is very much an art, rather than a science. There is loads of demographic information about what a swinging voter looks like. Where they live, what their income is, how many kids they have, etc. But since they are fundamentally disengaged, it’s difficult. It’s further compounded by the group of people who say they are undecided or swinging, but who really aren’t. Similarly, the number of swing voters is inflated in polls because people want to avoid “buyers remorse” – that is, regretting their vote in the last election

I know that I’m not bringing anything remarkable to the discussion about swinging voters – and someone who’s worked at the coalface of a campaign may point out that I’m completely wrong.


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