Who Will Be the Swing Voters in 2016?

Bush logoBy Gerald F. Seib, WSJ

Poll data suggests single white women and Hispanic voters could play key roles in presidential election

election-day-voting-voteWe are at that stage in the political cycle when presidential candidates (and those of us who follow them) are obsessed with their ability to win over the “base” of their parties as they seek the nomination. Later, attention will shift to the nominees’ ability to appeal to unattached “swing voters” who float between the two parties in the general election.

Those terms—base and swing voters—are in quotes because they are used pretty loosely, often without much precision or an acknowledgment that they shift over time. These aren’t constant groups from election to election.

So to get a better sense of which voters actually make up the base of each party in the nominating season, and which voters will constitute the swing voters in the general election, the pollsters who conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll pulled together all the data collected in our surveys throughout 2014 and gave it a closer look.

From the thousands of interviews conducted, it is possible to identify which Americans really constitute the base of each party today, and which groups of swing voters seem unattached and available to shift the balance in 2016. Spoiler alert: The ability to win over single white women will be key, and the loyalties of Hispanics, young voters and working-class white men aren’t as fixed as you may think.

One way to identify the size and composition of the base of each party is simply to look at which voters identify themselves as Democrat or Republican. By that standard, Democrats have a slightly larger base nationally; 43% of all voters surveyed called themselves Democrats, 38% Republicans.

It’s possible to get a more precise reading of each party’s hard-core loyalists by sifting further through those two large groups. Specifically, the pollsters found which self-identified Republicans both voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012 and say they want Republicans to control Congress now, and which self-identified Democrats both voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and say they want Democrats to control Congress. “That’s a pretty hard-core definition of a base Republican and Democrat,” says GOP pollster William McInturff, who conducts the Journal/NBC News poll along with Democrat Fred Yang.

UT PanBy applying those filters, you can see a core Republican base comprising 21% of voters, and a core Democratic base of 25% of all voters.

Who are these core loyalists? Not surprisingly, the Republican core is heavily populated with tea-party supporters and self-identified conservatives. White Southerners, white men generally, rural men specifically, white married women and voters aged 65 and over are all key components of the GOP core.

On the Democratic side, the core loyalists—again not surprisingly—include self-identified liberals and African-Americans. Urban voters, college-educated women, suburban women and voters with postgraduate degrees all are heavily represented in the Democratic core.

Which voters, then, are up for grabs? On that front, there are cautionary notes for both parties, which shouldn’t take for granted the loyalties of some groups often assumed to be in their camps.

While young voters aged 18 to 34 are often assumed to be a solid Democratic bloc, for instance, the analysis finds many of them unattached to either party. Similarly, while Hispanics are part of the Democratic base generally, a significant share aren’t firmly rooted.

On the Republican side, young men and men with less than a college education aren’t as committed to the GOP cause as are older men. And while white working-class voters have been trending Republican for years, many appear up for grabs this time.

And here’s one early guess: young white women, and women with less than a college education, will be a target audience for both parties, because they don’t show strong loyalty to either one.

These pictures of the party bases and swing voters present some tantalizing early questions for the 2016 sweepstakes. Could Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee nail down the support of those crucial young women, and would she have the same appeal to those unattached young voters that Barack Obama did?

And would a Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio as a Republican nominee be able to lure away some of those loose Hispanics? Or could a Chris Christie or Scott Walker have the kind of appeal that could nail down those unattached working-class whites? On such questions will the 2016 election turn.

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