Swing Activists: France and America

First off, please welcome our two newest contributors, Phil and Adam. It’s a pleasure having such talent onboard.

I’ve been thinking. One not-so-secret conventional wisdom of campaigning (though most of the media seems to have missed it entirely) is the concept of firing up your base. What do I mean by this? The American political system is structured so that there are often greater returns to activating and exciting your base than to chasing the elusive middle. For example, one reason people cite Karl Rove’s supposed genious is that he realized, in time for the 2004 election, that Bush should not swing leftward/more moderately in the General Election, but instead hold steady in his reactionary politics/ swing rightwards.

Why does this work? Conventional wisdom has it that an undecided vote is worth two normal votes, since you both gain a vote and deny your opponent one. The new electoral calculus, however, has a different way of seeing things: the swing voter can be trumped by the swing activist. A “centrist” candidate (a la Harold Ford in 2006) who sticks to polls, is politically cautious, etc, may have the same issue positions as much of the electorate, but doesn’t neccessarily inspire. This candidate may give off the impression that they aren’t too committed to their cause. Their subconscious antipathy to their public positions may show off in their body language, etc. Perhaps most importantly, these candidates don’t do much to excite their core constituency. A hardcore party member may vote for a Milquetoast nominee, but they likely won’t volunteer for them, or show as much enthusiasm if they do. A committed volunteer in a well-run campaign can easily be worth 10 votes.

Similar to swing activists, there are (in the context of Democratic politics) “swing liberals”, who may usually sit out elections because “both parties are the same” or “I’m tired of voting for the lesser evil”, etc. This well of untapped votes can be substantial. In 2006, for example, Democrats famously gained more votes from self-identified Democrats – 2.41% , than from Independents – 2.08%.

For more on swing voters and swing activists, there is much good discussion at the Democratic Strategist and at Open Left.

So. Long story short, the comparatively low turnout in the American political system is such that you can get more votes from persuading your base to vote than by persuading independents/undecided voters to vote for you. Also, it’s probably easier.

In the recent French Presidential Elections of 2007, however, we see a different dynamic. The French system is characterized by multi-party runoff voting. There are various political parties, all with their own candidate. If no one candidate gets 50%+1 votes, then the top two vote-getters square off in Round Two. 2007 was characterized by many interesting deviations from the historical French norm. First of all, the voter participation rate was very high – 84.6%. Secondly, this election was a very polarizing one, such that many voters decided to forgo the minor-party candidates and to “vote utile” for one of the mainstream candidates – Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy, or, interestingly, François Bayrou. That brings us to the third deviation: Bayrou, a “centrist” candidate, picked up a great deal of the vote (18.57%, compared to Sarkozy’s 31.18% or Royal’s 25.87%), almost tripling 6.8% in the previous 2002 election.

For the second round, however, of the 2007 election, Royal and Sarkozy could not utilize the base-voter mobilization strategy: almost 90% of the electorate had voted in the 1st round. There were dimished returns to trying to squeeze votes from the remaining 10% (assuming that the voters of the “fringe parties” would automatically vote for whichever candidate was most ideologically aligned to their first choice. I.e. the number of people switching from Communist to Sarkozy is assumed to be negligible). Thus, both candidates were forced to pander to the center – Bayrou’s voters.

The voter participation rate and structure of the American politcal process, then, can perhaps be said to be a facilitator* to the horrible, 2002-2006 reign of the Repuiblican Trifecta (House, Senate, Pres). Knowing that appeasing their far-right base was more important than responding to the will of the majority of voters, Republicans felt free to ransack the country. Soon enough, however, they went too far. Let’s hope they keep marginalizing themselves.


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