If you listen to political pundits, the people who matter most in American politics are the swing voters. They’re the ones in the middle who sometimes vote for Democrats and sometimes “swing” to Republicans. I’m going to tell you why swing voters are really just suckers who get fooled every time.
There are some voters who are reliably with one party or the other. There’s a coalition of progressive left groups who are always going to vote for Democrats. There’s a coalition of social conservatives and economic conservatives who are always going to vote for Republicans. With few exceptions, the people in those groups are generally happy when their side is in power.
Then there are people who don’t fit into either of the mainstream camps. A lot of those people are libertarians (self-identified or otherwise) and a lot of them are simply moderates who don’t want to see either side of the mainstream become too dominant. And then there are people who don’t really know that much about what they believe, but they just don’t really like either side of the mainstream.
It’s the people in those middle groups who push elections one way or the other — as they swing from one mainstream party to the other. They were with Barack Obama in 2008, because they wanted almost any Democrat after eight years of George W. Bush, but they swung to Republicans heavily in 2010 congressional elections, because they didn’t like it that Obama had been doing what anybody should have known he was going to do as president.
It’s pretty clear what the two sides of the mainstream represent and what their followers want. To one extent or another, they’re going to get what they want from time to time — when their side is in power. However, for those swing voters, that’s not the case. They matter in elections. They’re going to hand victory to one side or the other — but once an election is over, they’re ignored again. That’s not going to change.
Here’s the way the pattern works in an election. In the primary, a candidate has to pander to the core voters of his constituency. A Republican candidate has to prove how conservative he is. A Democrat has to prove how dedicated he is to the various progressive causes. That will sometimes come in coded language so that the party faithful will get the signal that he’s “one of them,” but not in ways that frighten those who aren’t already on board.
For instance, a Republican has to prove how conservative he is, but in ways that the swing voters don’t perceive him — in the general election — to be extremist. In a primary, extremism is rewarded to an extent — at least if it’s a form of extremism that the core party voters like and perceive as making someone electable (whether they’re right about that or not). But in a general election, being a wishy-washy moderate is rewarded, so candidates who have spent their primaries pandering to extremist voters now have to be all things to all people as much as possible. It’s an odd line to walk.
The swing voters say — metaphorically speaking — “Hey, you candidates have to listen to our voices or you’re not going to get our votes.” So a GOP nominee who has spent his entire primary season proving how conservative he is (at least insofar as how primary voters define the term) will now move to the center and try to seem moderate and statesmanlike. A Democratic nominee who’s spent the primaries pandering to unions and various progressive interest groups will suddenly become more moderate-sounding.
Whichever side is most successful in seeming moderate and safe will tend to win those swing voters. (Of course, the swing voters are also most likely to go to whoever hasn’t been in power.) So one candidate or the other will successfully pander to the special interests of his party to get the nomination and then he’ll pretend to care about the preferences of the swing voters. Then he’s elected — at which point he goes back to being whatever he originally wanted to be.
What this means is that swing voters matter in a general election, but then a president goes back to being what his party expects him to be. Swing voters pushed Obama into office, after which he went back to being the progressive left Democrat that they should have known he was.
All of this is to say something simple. In a “winner take all” system — which is the way ours is structured — the people in the middle or the people who have minority views can’t make a difference. They can help decide which of the two major party candidates wins, but they can’t change anything about the way the country is governed. It just doesn’t work that way.
If you’re a libertarian or a moderate of some sort who thinks your participation is going to cause one of the major parties to change to be more like you, you’re fooling yourself. You matter in getting someone elected, but after the election is over, you’re going to be ignored.
Swing voters are suckers, because they’re courted at election time, but their interests are otherwise ignored. Even if you believe in a majoritarian system, if you’re in a minority, what good are you doing to participate? Why are you wasting your time?