Big Sort

Still Undecided? Ask Your Neighbor.

Undecideds don’t vote on issues. If they were interested in issues—or even in the personalities of candidates—they wouldn’t be undecideds. “They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary,” C. Wright Mills wrote in 1953, “they are inactionary; they are out of it.” Mills was writing about the torpor of Eisenhower-era Americans, but this is also a good description of undecideds a day before the 2008 election.

How do you get “inactionaries” to vote? Mostly, undecideds split evenly . Or, Pew Research Center’s Andy Kohut tells us , half of the undecideds don’t vote at all.

In the era of the big sort, the strategy for turning out so-called base voters and undecideds is the same. Politics is no longer about convincing individual voters with long lists of proposals and policy papers. Campaigns move communities of people—neighborhoods, congregations, home-schoolers, hunters—to the polls. And as these “peoples” steam to the vote, they pull along the undecideds in their wake.

“Voting research trends have … shown that independents are very susceptible to social influence, often turning to others in their local environment for advice on political matters,” University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel wrote  at the Christian Science Monitor Web site Patchwork Nation . That makes sense. After all, if you don’t know much about HD television, you turn to the neighborhood expert who can guide you through the “dynamic contrast ratios” of a purchase.

“As a result, independents’ decision making can be predicted from knowing the viewpoints of those who live close to them,” Gimpel continued. “Independents living in neighborhoods and households full of Democrats will be inclined to vote Democratic, and those interacting with Republicans will most often support the Republican. There are, of course, exceptions, but this pattern holds up in highly competitive elections.”

A candidate doesn’t win independents by moving to the ideological center. A campaign energizes partisans, and they will tow the undecided voters living nearby.

“In this sense, ‘base’ and ‘independent’ strategies complement one another and are not mutually exclusive,” Gimpel wrote. “When independents begin to pay attention to the campaign, they’ll typically turn to the partisans they live among for guidance. By playing to the base, a campaign is also likely to reach independent voters situated in the midst of that base.”

Excited people increase turnout. Close races increase turnout. In this sense, both campaigns benefit from the sense that the polls are tightening.

Leaving a Red State Behind Might Turn It Blue

Over the past four years, more than 23 million Americans have moved from one state to another. Statistician Bob Cushing (co-author of The Big Sort ) has been busy at the computer the last few weeks trying to understand how all those Mayflower trucks and U-Haul trailers might affect state results Tuesday.

We don’t know who moved. We don’t know their opinions or their party preferences. We do know, however, whether these movers came from a county that voted Democratic or Republican in 2004.* Most counties are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. So Bob counted the people moving into and out of the Republican and Democratic counties of swing states. What he found are some interesting changes in state populations over the last four years.  

For instance, Republican counties in Ohio lost 101,000 people while Democratic counties gained just over 6,000—a net change of 107,000 people in the Democrats’ favor. (Bush’s total margin in ‘04 was only 118,000 votes.)

Nevada was a red state in 2004. But according to Cushing’s calculations, the net gain in Democratic counties topped 251,000 people. Meanwhile, Republican counties in Nevada lost 86,511 people.

New Hampshire, blue in ‘04, is still a tossup, perhaps because Republican counties there grew by 56,000 since 2004 while Democratic counties showed a net outflow of 40,000. Maybe that helps explain why John McCain zoomed to Peterborough on Sunday.

Virginia is trending Democratic partly because the Democratic counties in Virginia are growing faster than the Republican counties—a net increase of 32,000 people since the last election.

Some states showed little change at all. Indiana, for instance. Florida and Arizona showed huge increases in the population of Republican counties.

People move. When they do, they bring their politics with them. Over the last four years, there’s been enough internal migration to change the vote in a half-dozen states. Those are the places both campaigns are visiting during these last few hours.

(*The Internal Revenue Service releases a file every year showing the number or returns and dependents who moved from one county to another during the previous years. This is a good count of how many families and people left one county and moved to another.)