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The Endangered Swing Voter

Posted on November 8, 2016

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find, you get what you need.” – Rolling Stones

2016-11-08_Voter_Registration.jpgWell, the day we have all been waiting for has finally come. That’s right, today is the last day we have to be inundated with political propaganda from every corner of our lives! (At least until the next election cycle.) Oh yeah…it is also the day where Americans will vote for representatives and initiatives from the Federal all the way down to their state and local levels. Obviously the vote that is garnering the most attention/press/money is the one each of us can cast for the next President of the United States. As many friends, family, and clients may already know, I’m about as apolitical as they come, but I felt it was my duty to write about politics on Election Day. So with that, we again take a break from our normal musings on money, economics, and investing and instead turn our attention to today’s election.

I think we can all agree (a relative oddity these days when it comes to politics), that this Presidential election cycle has been extremely polarizing for our country. All of this polarization has led to the near extinction of a group of voters known as swing voters. A swing voter is a truly independent voter who may vote for a Republican in one election and a Democrat in another. Between 1956 and 1980, this group of vote switchers accounted for roughly 12% of the electorate, which was more than enough to swing an election one way or the other. As such, candidates needed to persuade this block of people to vote for them in order to win an election, and they did that through compromise and a platform that moved more toward the center on the political spectrum.

As an example, in 1996, Bill Clinton stated that “the era of big government is over,” which is a sentiment that his wife would never dream of uttering twenty years later during her run for presidency. And that is because the percentage of swing voters has dropped precipitously over the years hitting 8.1% in 2008 and an all-time low of 5.2% during the last Presidential election in 2012.

Rather than moving to the center the major political parties are doing just the opposite. The strategy today is to rile up the base by drawing a clear line in the sand on every issue from abortion, taxes, climate change, health care, same-sex marriage, the military, and a long list of other topics which creates a clear us against them mentality. In other words, the traditional road to the White House was through persuasion, whereas now it is through polarization.

“Campaigns are changing their strategies to focus on the people who are at the ideological extremes rather than centrist voters,” - Costas Panagopoulos, political scientist at Fordham University in New York

953430_1_A_rising_tide_of_antipathy_standard.jpgSomewhat contrary to this trend is the fact that the number of “independent” voters in this country continues to rise. In fact there are more independent voters than registered Republicans or Democrats.

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Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University set out to study why partisan voting has been on the rise while at the same time fewer and fewer voters label themselves as either Democrats or Republicans. Their conclusion was that the trend is being driven by what they call negative partisanship where voters aren’t so much voting in favor of someone they like but instead simply voting against someone they don’t like (sound familiar?). Rather than being motivated by positive feelings of hope for a better tomorrow, voters are now being motivated by negative emotions of fear and disdain.

“More Americans today may not identify with a party, but their behavior indicates we have never observed as many loyal supporters,” Corwin Smidt, political scientist at Michigan State University

It is a sorry state of affairs when fear and loathing are the main drivers of political support. In a study from 1954 entitled Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign, the authors argued that a diverse electorate holding a variety of different opinions and beliefs is essential for the health of our country. In other words, we can’t just have two blocks of rigid voting groups that are diametrically opposed to each other because that just leads to a situation where nothing can get done once candidates are in office.

Today we have a nation of polarized individuals with extremely rigid views. The problem with our current state is that it leads to dysfunction. Without compromise, the only options are either gridlock or figuring out a way to steamroll a one-sided agenda that ends up alienating roughly half of the citizenry. We’ve been living with the former (gridlock) for the better part of the last decade which has led to record low approval ratings for everyone in D.C. Still, this is a far less evil than the latter option (steamrolling), which ultimately divides a country, creates civil unrest, and has the potential to erode the very foundation of our republic. Compromise is key. In the same vein as the opening quote from the well-known song by the Rolling Stones, we can’t always get what we want (one party’s ideals) but if we try sometimes (voting), we might find that we get what we need (compromise).

Hopefully, this post hasn’t ruffled too many feathers, but instead has given some of you pause to reconsider the idea that the world doesn’t have to be black and white. The real world is full of many shades of grey and compromise is a much better alternative than the dangerous road we are currently headed down. We all need to understand that there are two sides to every coin and no one political party has all the answers. In short, we need to encourage our politicians to seek the middle ground and in doing so ensure that swing voters never go extinct!


elliott_headshot_bw.jpgAuthor Elliott Orsillo, CFA is a founding member of Season Investments and serves on the investment committee overseeing the management of client assets. He spent nearly ten years as a financial analyst and portfolio manager working primarily with institutional clients prior to co-founding Season Investments. Elliott earned a bachelor's degree in Engineering from Oral Roberts University and a master's degree from Stanford University in Management Science & Engineering with an emphasis in Finance. Elliott and his wife Gigi have three children and like to spend their time outdoors enjoying everything the great state of Colorado has to offer.


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