NYT’s Adam Nagourney reports that both parties believe we are in the midst of an electoral sea change:

[T]urning out core Republican and Democratic voters will be more critical to next year’s election than winning independent voters, long a prime target in national campaigns.


The activity reflects a new view of a political landscape changed because of what each party sees as an increasingly polarized and evenly divided electorate. Americans who move between parties–known as swing voters–are being overshadowed by a growing and very motivated base of Republican and Democratic loyalists.

“There’s a realization, having looked at the past few elections, that the party that motivates their base–that makes their base emotional and turn out–has a much higher likelihood of success on Election Day,” Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign, said in an interview.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who advised Bill Clinton when he won by appealing to swing voters 11 years ago, said: “Things have changed over the decade since 1992. The partisans are much more polarized. And turnout has actually gone up because the partisans have turned out in much greater numbers and in greater unity.”

“I don’t see a decline in independents,” Mr. Greenberg added. “But what has happened is the partisans have dominated because their turnout is higher and they vote with greater and greater unity.”

This shift signals that the 2004 election will have a much greater reliance on identifying supporters and getting them to the polls. That would tip the balance away from the emphasis on developing nuanced messages aimed at swing voters, who make up 10 percent to 20 percent of the electorate, pollsters said.

The change has the potential, several strategists said, of encouraging the presidential candidates to make the kind of unvarnished partisan appeals that they once tried to avoid out of concern of pushing away independent-minded voters. “If both sides are concerned about motivating their base, the agenda difference between the two is much more dramatic,” Mr. Dowd said. “I actually think it could make for a much more interesting election.”

If this calculation is correct–and I’m frankly quite skeptical of it–then it does indeed make sense for the Democrats to nominate a Howard Dean or a Hillary Clinton. This only makes sense if the thesis is that moderates or independents are so apathetic that they’re unlikely to vote; there simply aren’t that many Americans who are strongly ideological.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    If it is correct and I have to agree with your skepticism then we are in for some very turbulent times. At best a chilly political detant at worse an all out civil cold war.

    We will be drawing lines when we should be finding ways to compromise.

  2. JohnC says:

    Nice rant on compromise and the founding fathers. But I think the situation is a bit different. Representatives coming to compromise over how to write the laws is definitely something sorely needed. But the process of electing those representatives is another matter entirely. I think it’s a good thing to remember to keep them seperate.

    The opposition is going to be there – it’s not like they’re going away. But the compromising happens after the election, not before it.

  3. Leroy says:

    Actually the current American political climate bears some strong remsemblence to the landscape of the late 19th century. Polarization of the polity, into increasingly partisan sects, is nothing new. In that previous time frame, the deadlock eventually broke around the turn of the new century and the Republicans dominated until debacle of the Great Depression drove the Republicans into the long minority status. Despite Republican domination of the White House in the last half of the 20th century, the Democrats were still the dominant party in the country as a whole until very recently. Now the two parties are in rough parity (though technically the nationally government is in Republican hands). The next few elections (perhaps even just the next election) will likely determine which party will dominate for the first half of the 21st century. I suspect that party is the Republican party simply because the Democrats are in a receding mode on a historical swing. Look for the Democrats to be the party of new ideas around the elections of 2040s or 2050s and becoming the dominant party again shortly after that but not much before then.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Interesting thesis, Leroy. I don’t think any party will achieve that level of dominance again, simply because they are so adaptable nowadays. Plus, as polarized as the electorate is now, it’s nothing compared to the era between the lead-up to the Civil War through roughly the Great Depression. The issues are also in much greater flux.

  5. Leroy says:

    Well, it is only a prophecy, to be taken with a large grain of salt. If I really wanted to play Cassandra, I would predict the breakup of the Democratic Party and the rise of the Greens as their replacement, but I just think that is going a bit to far. In general though, I think it quite enough to say that the Democrats are going to become the minority party by a slight amount for the next two, three, four or maybe even five decades (with the smaller numbers likelier than the larger). That strikes me as a not unreasonable position to take, especially as I do not think the Republicans will ever manage to dominate the polity for that time period to come in the same way that the Democrats held onto power for the majority of the 20th century.

  6. SwampWoman says:

    Why do people assume that just because I am a democrat, I would ever vote for Hillary or Dean? (My favorite candidate in the last election was John McCain.) We (democrats) will vote for whom we believe is the best candidate for America, regardless of party.