I read a book in May titled The Persuadable Voter, the authors argue that while voters are generally partisan and often uninformed, the prevailing view in political science that campaigns don’t matter is inaccurate. The book is interesting, but also thick and boring at times so I’m going to summarize it here for you. I found a good quote where the authors break down their argument into six parts, so I’m just going to elaborate each point after quoting it.
“1. Partisans are likely to disagree with their preferred political party on policy issues more often than is generally believed. This finding is robust across different policy measures, surveys, and even among the most sophisticated partisans. In addition, contemporary partisans are more likely to hold policy disagreements on cultural, rather than economic issues.” This is the definition of a persuadable voter, someone who generally agrees with a party but disagree with them on one or a few issues; generally cultural issues like abortion, gay marriage, guns, and drug policy. A perfect example of this is a pro-life Catholic who generally votes for Democrats, but sometimes votes for the Republican when abortion or stem cell research are major issue in the campaign. Or a libertarian leaning Republican that disagree with the party on social issues. They show through a variety of surveys that a large enough portion of the electorate to swing elections fit the definition of persuadable voter.
“2. Persuadable voters are not a homogeneous group of unsophisticated and indifferent policy moderates, as has often been believed. Rather, persuadable voters hold diverse policy preferences, making it less clear which candidates offers a better match.” Because persuadable voters exist, people who hold political positions that conflict with their preferred party, it isn’t always clear which candidate these voters should or will support.
“3. When exposed to campaign information, persuadable partisans are more likely to be undecided about their presidential vote choice, more likely to change their mind over the course of the campaign, and more likely to defect at the ballot box.
4. Because the campaign helps determine which issue preferences receive greater weight in the vote decision, the content of campaign dialogue shapes who supports which candidate and why. Partisans who disagree with their party on an important policy issue are more likely to defect if that issue is the focus of campaign dialogue.” Campaigns matter because persuadable voters are susceptible to changing their mind if the right issues are raised during the campaign. If a Democratic candidate makes the anti-choice or anti-gay marriage position of his Republican opponent a major part of the campaign the cross-pressured libertarian Republican I described above is more likely to vote for the Democrat.
“5. Contrary to expectations that candidates will avoid divisive policy positions or target policy messages to core partisans alone, candidates deliberately attempt to prime wedge issues in order to win over persuadable voters.” There is a prevailing myth among political scientists and the media that candidates lean right or left in primaries to attract partisans then lean to the middle to attract centrist voters during the general election. The authors argue that instead campaigns are choosing to highlight controversial issues because those are the issues that might swing persuadable voters.
“6. Candidates are more likely to use divisive wedge issues when they have more information about the preferences of the voters and when they are able to narrowly target their campaign messages.” As campaigns have started to accumulate more and more information about voters, generally through buying consumer and marketing information from companies that sell information, they try to target specific voters based on the information they have about them. This is an important point because in the past campaigns were limited to a few broad mediums to express their positions. A TV or radio ad will be heard by a wide variety of voters, voters that may be repelled by a candidate focusing on a controversial issue, so persuadable voters are targeted through campaign mailers and other voter specific mediums. The pro-life Catholic I described above may receive a mailer from the Republican candidate highlighting how many times his Democratic opponent has voted to support pro-choice legislation to discourage the voter from voting for the Democrat, but the Republican may not want to highlight the same message in a TV ad out of fear of scaring the Libertarian leaning Republican from voting for him. The more voter information campaigns have the easier it is to efficiently target persuadable voters with their specific policy conflict with their party.
I like the book because it examines campaigns from a perspective that the media tends to ignore. It’s easy enough to find a TV spot that every voter sees and break it down, but going out and finding different mailers that are being sent to specific cross-pressured partisans and breaking down those is more work. I think the idea of a persuadable voter reveals something about campaigns that’s often missed in the media coverage of campaigns. There are a few problems with the book though, the last election the book describes is the 2004 presidential election. An election that is known to have been possibly swung by the gay marriage wedge issue. Perhaps the findings are significantly skewed by that, though I kind of doubt it since wedge issues continue to play a role in general elections. The other issue is that in my final example, the pro-life Catholic, the issue of abortion was not highlighted by the Republican campaign because they didn’t want to scare away the vote of the libertarian leaning voter. The flaw, of course, is that if you vote for a Republican you know you’re voting for a pro-life candidate, so it seems as though some wedge issues aren’t particularly affected by having more voter information and the ability to target more effectively. I think the book offers an interesting perspective on the power of campaigns and the nature of swing voters. They’re not necessarily all ignorant, uniformed fools voting for whichever party hasn’t apparently destroyed the economy most recently, some are informed cross-pressured partisans that change their minds on the basis of the issues highlighted in the campaign.
(The Persuadable Voter, Hillygus, D. Sunshine, Shields, and Todd G., 310)