In today's increasingly polarized political landscape, an endangered species of American voters is quietly thriving among the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts’s South Shore: swing voters.
“We’re not blue, we’re not red. We’re a new color – we’re cranberry crimson,” says Bill Keohan, chair of the Plymouth Democratic Town Committee, located just a few blocks from where the Pilgrims first landed in 1620.
Electorally competitive or “crimson” counties – where a presidential candidate won with less than a 5 percent margin – are becoming increasingly rare in the US. Negative partisanship has encouraged a sense of tribalism between Republicans and Democrats, leaving an increasingly small population – now just 1 in 20 US voters – who will switch from one party to another from election to election.
Because of their shrinking numbers, swing voters have largely lost their moderating influence on presidential candidates, who appeal to their party’s most committed members – now generally located on the ideological extremes. But they are not extinct. They just exist in unexpected places, and on smaller geographical scales.
In Plymouth County, for example, voters cast ballots based on the individual, rather than the party.
“For me, it’s about if he is a nice guy,” says Mariah from Hingham, Mass. “It’s about what he or she believes in or what he or she does. It’s about the person not the party.”
‘Balance is a good thing’
President Obama won Massachusetts with a 26-point lead in the 2008 election and a 23-point lead in 2012. But in Plymouth, Obama won by only eight points in 2008 and three points in 2012.
“I believe they believe that balance is a good thing,” says State Senator Vinny deMacedo, speaking of the Plymouth county voter. “In 2008 we had had eight years of George Bush and they wanted some balance for that and then [in 2012] we had had four years of President Obama and [many] believed they were balancing Democratic control.”
The Pew Research Center included Plymouth in a short list of electorally competitive counties earlier this month. But closer analysis suggests this short list is actually even shorter: many of these seemingly competitive counties are made up of definitively red and blue cities that just happen to balance out one another.
Riverside, Calif. and Fresno, Calif., for example, are listed under Pew’s “most populous contested counties.” In 2012, President Obama won these counties by 1.6 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. However, only four of Riverside’s 26 cities were electorally competitive in 2012. And in Fresno, only the small city of Reedley – where 5,449 votes were cast – had a competitive race.
Breakdowns of Brown County, Wis., and Harris County, Texas, suggest a similar phenomenon.
But Plymouth’s status as a swing county holds up even when looking through a city-level microscope. In 2012, 10 of the 27 cities in Plymouth County were won by five points or less and 17 of the cities were won by eight points or less.
“Plymouth has a history of being inconsistent with the rest of the state,” says Mr. Keohan. “We’ll absolutely be swayed by a candidate. We’ll cross party lines – they don’t have the same intensity here on the South Shore.”
There are reasons why places like Plymouth are on the decline, says Corwin Smidt, an assistant professor of politics at Michigan State University.
“Since the state is so safe there is no point for Republicans to tackle Plymouth,” says Dr. Smidt. “These are maybe places where parties could see opportunity but they don’t act on it.”
Lessons from Plymouth
Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have shifted their agendas to serve their party’s ideological wings while centrist voters in Plymouth are ripe for the taking. And when candidates speak to the partisan ideologue, many in Plymouth feel passed over – and this has implications that ripple out from the South Shore.
“It’s not like we all need to be swing voters, but we do need people who can go the other way,” adds Smidt. “You can’t have accountability in elections, where people get punished and rewarded for what they’re doing, unless they get punished and rewarded. You can’t expect a party to change if everyone keeps repeating the same behavior.”
While a record-setting 43 percent of Americans claim to be political independents, they tend to vote with the same party in consecutive elections. But the towns of Marshfield, Hingham, Scituate, Pembroke, Bridgewater, and Carver voted Democratic in 2008, only to vote Republican in 2012.
“Tons of people I know are independents,” says Lisa of Scituate, Mass., who clarifies that the independents she knows switch from one party to another, bucking the national trend. “Even more so now.”
But like other endangered species, simply marveling at the phenomenon of Plymouth’s swing voters isn’t enough to save them from going extinct.
“I don’t even know anymore,” says Jeff from Hingham, who says he has voted both Democratic and Republican in recent elections. “Now it’s like you look at a menu for the options and you’re not even hungry.”