Thursday, March 27, 2008

Following President Bush’s razor-thin election victory in 200, strategists beginning early re-election planning reached a significant conclusion. With partisanship growing over the prior decade, they concluded a large segment of the electorate had gradually sorted itself out into hardened camps of Republicans and Democrats, leaving the pool of truly persuadable Americans at its lowest point in years.

This reality carried significant tactical implications for the 2004 presidential election. Mr. Bush or his Democratic opponent would capture the White House not only by winning the support of undecided voters, but by mobilizing large armies of citizens who were already predisposed to vote for a Republican or Democrat.

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns still needed to do a lot of persuading. But as results in key states such as Ohio demonstrated in 2004, mobilizing Republicans in large numbers was more of a key to Mr. Bush’s re-election than convincing independent voters.

Fast forward to 2008, and both parties face a shifting electoral landscape. Mobilizing the base is still important, but this year’s presidential contest will turn more on swaying swing voters. A recent Pew poll supports this point. It finds the percentage of self-identified independents has increased five points since 2004. And given these new winds, it’s interesting that both parties — perhaps not by accident are poised to nominate candidates well suited to win this pivotal segment of the electorate.

First, let’s consider the Democrats. While a number of primaries remain, Barack Obama likely will lead in both pledged delegates and total votes as the process winds down. Given those realities, party elders cannot deny him the nomination. Doing so would create an unprecedented divisive intra-party firestorm and guarantee a Democratic loss in November.

Polls conducted during the primary season consistently reveal Mr. Obama’s strength with independent and younger swing voters. Hillary Clinton regularly has performed well with traditional Democratic voters — lower-income whites, senior citizens and union members. But Mr. Obama did far better among those with weaker party ties, such as younger voters and self-described independents.

Republicans witnessed a similar process in their primaries. John McCain struggled initially among those with the strongest Republican attachments, but performed well among independents, moderates and even crossover Democrats. Now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee, his support among traditional Republicans is growing, while his appeal among independents remains strong.

How do Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama compete for these crucial voters? Many campaign professionals believe persuadable voters decide more based on candidate characteristics, not issue positions. These characteristics include perceived leadership, vision, trust, and the ability to inspire. Democratic consultant Robert Creamer, writing for a swing-voter forum on the Web site agrees. “You constantly hear the media, the pundits and even political consultants tell us that the Democrats’ message is about the economy, or the Republicans’ message is about national security, or that one candidate’s message is about education, and another’s is about taxes. This is never true in American politics. The subject of a campaign message is never an issue, or even a problem,” Mr. Creamer writes.

He argues that persuadable voters rely on candidate qualities: “Issues like prescription drugs or Social Security or tax cuts are often symbols that are used to describe the qualities of a candidate or party. But they are not the subject of the message in a political campaign. With persuadables, our goal is to convince the voter to cast his ballot for our candidate. So, the candidate is the subject of the message.”

A March 14-16 Gallup poll underscores Mr. McCain’s and Mr. Obama’s strength on these candidate quality measures. Asking Americans their preferences between all three major White House aspirants on 10 qualities like trustworthiness, decisiveness, effectiveness, vision, integrity and bipartisanship, the Arizona senator and the Illinois senator each win three categories, they tie on three more, while Mrs. Clinton only wins outright in one area (has a clear plan for the future of the country).

Perceptions of candidate strength among a growing pool of persuadable voters will no doubt shift as the campaign unfolds. Debates, advertising and the conduct of Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama over the next several months will shape the impressions these swing voters hold. But right now it appears both parties will nominate their best candidates to compete for this critical bloc — an outcome very few predicted in this campaign that continues to surprise — and creating the conditions for a very close November election.

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