Opinion | The 3 kinds of swing voters — and why they aren’t with Trump or Biden

There are at least three kinds of swing voters. And both President Biden and former president Donald Trump should be very worried about their standing with all three this election cycle.

First, there are the switchers: those who backed one major party in a presidential election but then shifted to the other four years later. These are the kind of people who both changed and confounded the world by voting for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.

We don’t have precise data on this group because voters aren’t required to list who they supported in previous elections. But political scientist Alan Abramowitz estimates, based on polling from the American National Election Studies, that about 6 percent of Americans who voted in both 2016 and 2020 backed different parties in each election. About two-thirds of this group went from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020, while only a third went from Hillary Clinton in 2016 to Trump.

That was a big change from the 2016 election, when Obama-Trump voters vastly outnumbered the Romney-Clinton switchers.

Who are the Trump 2016/Biden 2020 voters likely to support this November? It’s hard to say. This is a very small segment of the overall electorate and hence hard to poll. I suspect some are part of the 20 percent of the electorate journalists have dubbed “double haters”: people who dislike both major-party candidates. (Polls conflict about which candidate is doing better among this group.)

But we do have one recent piece of data about Obama-Trump-Biden voters, and it’s not comforting for either candidate. Ballotpedia has tracked 25 counties in 16 states that backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, Trump in 2016, and Biden in 2020 — meaning they swung with the country. Most Obama-Trump-Biden counties are modest in size and outside huge metropolitan areas. Some are in key swing states, such as Saginaw County, Mich., and Erie County, Pa. The biggest is Florida’s Pinellas County, which is home to and about 1 million people and the city of St. Petersburg.

In 2022, the parties split these counties almost exactly evenly. There were a total of 36 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections in the states that include these 25 swing counties. (Not all states had a gubernatorial or Senate election, and some had both.) The Democrats were ahead at the county level in these Senate and gubernatorial races in 19 instances; the Republicans 17. So these counties as a group aren’t as Republican as they were in 2016 (when Trump won them all) or as Democratic as in 2020 (when Biden won them all).

The second kind of swing voters are the occasionals: those who alternate between voting and not voting. Millions of Americans sit out local and state elections in odd-numbered years — and even the congressional midterms — but then vote in presidential races. In recent years, however, we’ve seen huge differences even in presidential elections. Significantly more people voted in 2020 (about 67 percent of voting-eligible citizens) compared with 2016 (61 percent) and 2012 (62 percent). Trump received 11 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016; Biden was 15 million votes ahead of Clinton.

Americans younger than 45, people of color, lower-income people and those who aren’t that politically engaged tend to vote at lower levels. So in the past, higher-turnout elections (presidential races in particular) generally favored Democrats because those elections drew more people of color and more younger people, two left-leaning blocs. In 2020, Biden won a clear majority (about 56 percent) of those who didn’t vote in 2016, according to the left-leaning data firm Catalist.

But high turnout might not guarantee victory for Democrats this year — nor would low turnout doom them. Democrats are doing really well in special elections with very light overall turnout, likely because a core of older, liberal upper-income White political junkies is fixated on defeating the Trump-era Republican Party. Meanwhile, some polls suggest that Americans who aren’t sure whether they will vote prefer Trump over Biden.

Ultimately, what matters is what kinds of people turn out in higher or lower numbers, particularly in swing states. For Biden, an ideal scenario is if young and Black voters who disapprove of him but lean left on policy vote at high rates; urban and suburban women who strongly support abortion rights remain extra-engaged, as they were in 2022; and some of the working-class Latino and White Americans who often don’t vote but were excited by Trump in either 2016 or 2020 decide to stay home. Trump should hope for more White Christian voters and fewer young and Black voters.

The third group of swing voters are the third-partiers: those who go from voting for a major party to a third party or vice versa. About 6 percent of Americans voted third party in 2016, but that dropped to 2 percent in 2020. Among those who voted third party in 2016, 53 percent backed Biden in 2020 and 36 percent picked Trump, and 10 percent again voted third-party, according to Pew.

Polls suggest the third-party contingent will be larger in 2024 than it was in 2020 and perhaps even 2016. Many Americans are dissatisfied with both Trump and Biden. But unlike in 2016, it’s not clear that the third-party vote will come largely from people who would have otherwise backed Democrats. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in particular is drawing voters from both parties, and both Biden’s and Trump’s campaigns are wary of him.

So things are complicated — much more so than four years ago. Back then, it was obvious which swings Biden needed to defeat Trump and that they were likely to happen. Democratic leaders were focused on increasing Black and youth turnout compared with 2016. Some leftist voters who refused to vote for Clinton were horrified by Trump’s presidency and therefore more willing to support whoever was the Democratic presidential nominee. Biden’s moderate brand made him an ideal candidate to appeal to some Republicans who had backed Trump in 2016. Trump’s divisive presidency meant he was unlikely to win many Democrats who had supported Clinton.

Now, there are obvious signs of trouble for Biden among all three groups of swing voters. Black voters and young voters’ lukewarm feelings about Biden are likely to reduce their turnout. Some leftists might support a third-party candidate or not vote at all in protest of the president’s Gaza policies. I doubt Biden’s fairly liberal record will appeal to people conservative enough to have voted for Trump in 2020.

But there is little evidence Trump is winning over many Biden voters, either. Kennedy is pulling votes from him, too. And the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections suggest there is a high-turnout, anti-Trump majority in key states such as Michigan.

Swing voters will matter. But six months from Election Day, it’s really hard to figure out how they will swing.

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