Forty percent of American voters now identify as independent, the largest group of non-Republican or Democrat voters the country has seen in 75 years. Linda Killian, a Washington, D.C. journalist, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The Swing Vote, the Untapped Power of Independents,” says half of the 40 percent who don’t identify as Republican or Democrat are legitimate swing voters; that is to say, they agree with Republicans on some issues and Democrats on other issues. For her book, Killian focused in on those authentic swing voters, interviewing hundreds of them in four main swing states—Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire.
Killian joined Jennifer Granholm in “The War Room” to explain her four-group classification of the swing voters and what motivates each block, from big government to religion to social issues. Here’s how they break down:
New Hampshire swing voters are socially moderate, fiscally conservative and concerned about the government getting too big. Still, they’re intolerant of the right’s recent rhetoric. Will alignment with Romney trump their distaste for the Republican Party? Killian argues that Romney may have a lot of sway with this group. They live in key states but since the group is relatively small, they may not greatly influence the election’s outcome.
“The NPR Republicans are very turned off by social extremism, the spending of the Bush administration and by the Republican Congress,” Kilian says, “but they’re not a fan of health care reform and they don’t like big government so Romney may appeal to them.”
America first Democrats
Ohio swing voters used to be Reagan Democrats. They’re mostly working class men who have been hit hard by the recession. They disagree with Republican trade policies but don’t think Democrats stand for traditional American values.
“The interesting thing about the America first Democrats, I think they are definitely up for grabs and I think [Obama] knows it,” Killian says, referring to President Obama’s four planned trips to the state of Ohio this year.
The Facebook generation
In a state where 40 percent of its residents are under 30, Colorado swing voters make up a unique population. They tend to distrust politicians in general, are pro-environment and socially moderate, and tend to vote Democratic but have a big interest in third party candidates. In her book Kilian writes, “the Independent Facebook generation voters tend to be liberal on environmental and social issues. They are worried about the future of the planet and often volunteer in behalf of environmental or other causes. They don’t understand the old battles of race and values…Since they are new voters the positions of Facebook generation voters are not well formed and their party alliances are very loose. They are trying to figure out where they fit in politically.”
In order for the two parties to engage Facebook Generation voters, Killian says political leaders will have to do the following: “Keep their promises, work together, and make some progress on big issues. These skeptical Facebook generation voters are always on the lookout for a lack of authenticity and will stay home if they don’t think politicians are delivering.”
Starbucks moms and dads
Starbucks moms and dads are typical Virginia swing voters. They make up the largest block of independents and have tended toward deciding issues impulsively, which is why strong political messaging is crucial for this group. They live in the suburbs, are fiscally conservative and socially moderate but, like the NPR Republicans, they are turned off by extremism. They also tend to have issue-based loyalties. They care about issues like the deficit, the economy, jobs, healthcare, education and defense.
“These suburban voters are incredibly important,” Killian says. “More than 50 percent of all Americans live in suburbs. It’s a huge voting block,” she explains. Obama carried this voting block in key swing states in 2008, Killian said, but we have yet to see who will carry this crucial group in the election this year.
For Killian, the unusually large cohort of swing voters is made up of people so turned off by both parties that they refuse to identify with one over the other. “They’re turned off by the dysfunction, the polarization. They hate the negative ads, they want substance and they are really tired of what’s going on in Washington,” Kilian says. Independents were searching for change in their political leaders in 2006, 2008 , 2010 and they’re not seeing that change now, and frankly, Killian says, she doesn’t understand why the two parties don’t understand that and look more closely into what these voters want. Unlocking that could be the key to winning the election.