Younger voters are emerging as the most volatile as both parties prepare for what could be a generational showdown in next year’s general election.
Depending on the specific matchups, voters give the Democratic presidential nominee as much as three-quarters of the youth vote, or as little as 37 percent, according to polling over the past six months that underscores just how unsettled the election is within the emerging generation of voters.
Hispanics are also living up to their reputation as swing voters, with a 30 percent variation in their voting preferences between a Democrat and a Republican, according to a Washington Times analysis of recent polling.
More broadly, women are more settled as a voting group than men, and voters in the South, who lean Republican more than those in the rest of the country, are less of a swing group than elsewhere. Voters making less than $50,000 a year are more of a swing group than those with higher incomes, the analysis found.
Without any “soccer moms” or “NASCAR dads” — groups that pollsters identified in previous elections as key swing constituencies — the major battlegrounds now appear to be the same groups as in the past: self-identified independents, Hispanics and younger voters.
“The younger, 18- to 34-year-old voters could be one of the tipping points,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Do they turn out for the Democrat in the way they did Obama in 2008 or even 2012, or do they yawn? They seemed to break late in 2012.”
Mr. Yepsen said his students are turned off by politics and by the negativity of the debate, and are less enthused than their elder siblings in 2008.
“They do care about their communities, and many would rather volunteer at a food bank than volunteer to knock doors, because it produces tangible results. Students today seem more concerned about their debts and getting a job and don’t seem to have much time for politics,” he said. “As Election Day nears, I expect them to get more interested, but I don’t think it’s going to be what we saw in 2008.”
Hispanics have been the hot swing group for several elections. They started this campaign season appearing to be up for grabs again: Polling over the summer showed Democrats winning only about half of the vote in matchups against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, with a large chunk of Hispanic voters saying they were undecided about the race.
That has changed. Those undecided Hispanics are breaking toward Democrats, giving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernard Sanders about 70 percent support in those same matchups. Hispanics tilt even more to the Democratic side if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee.
Black voters have been locked in with Democrats throughout the campaign. In recent polling, 80 percent to 90 percent support Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Sanders. White voters are also fairly set, with 30 percent to 40 percent supporting Democrats. With a population so large, though, even small shifts within the demographic can quickly flip elections.
Too early for targeting
Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey, said the race has not developed enough to say which voting blocs campaigns need to target.
“It’s really unclear right now. The general election voter has not emerged yet,” he said. “A lot of this depends on whether the anger and frustration you are seeing on the Republican side, which now has a voice in Donald Trump, starts to bubble over among independent voters.”
Some analysts said they are looking to see which demographics emerge as disenfranchised voters angry with the political system as a whole, and which voters are more complacent this year, staying home rather than heading to the polls on Election Day.
“I really am going to be looking at those people who are disaffected, some of the people who are backing Trump, those who are white and blue-collar and non-college-educated, whether they stay home or whether they go to the polls,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Ms. Brown added that the general election matchup ultimately could determine turnout for both parties and that an especially brutal election season could lead some to simply tune out and not vote.
“Were this to get to Trump and Clinton I’d imagine you would just have one of the most ugly elections you’ve ever had with profoundly low turnout because all both sides would do is pillory the other,” she said. “That would be a tremendously negative campaign.”
Indeed, one analyst said the biggest factor come Election Day could be the size of turnout for these demographics rather than the actual breakdown of how they vote.
“If we’re talking about the endgame — November — I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what share of the electorate is white. In 1992, when [Bill] Clinton was elected, the nonwhite vote was 13 percent. When Obama was re-elected last time, it was 28 percent. That’s been a trend,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at New York’s Marist College.
“The best scenario for the Republicans, if Trump is the candidate, is that the absence of Obama drives down African-American turnout, the Latino vote is not dramatically affected because maybe Cruz is on the ballot [as vice president], and then the so-called angry white vote becomes a bigger part of the pie,” the pollster said.
Mr. Murray at Monmouth said the very nature of swing voters makes them tough to spot this far out.
“Our experience shows that the voter, particularly one who is a swing voter, does not pay attention until it is time for them to pay attention. And it is not time for them to pay attention until the nominees are completely set,” he said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.