The Swing Voters We Aren't Talking About

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Ibram Kendi argues in The Atlantic that we should look at young voters, voters of color and especially young voters of color as "the other swing voters." (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)
Ibram Kendi argues in The Atlantic that we should look at young voters, voters of color and especially young voters of color as "the other swing voters." (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)

The term “swing voter” is thrown around a lot during election seasons.

They’re an elusive bunch who are traditionally defined as voters without a particular political party affiliation, or who, depending on the issues, will vote across party lines.

But there’s one kind of swing voter that is often overlooked, says Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center (@AntiracismCtr) at American University and author of "How To Be an Antiracist."

“These are voters who are swinging between voting Democrat or not voting at all,” Kendi says. “And this group of other swing voters are predominantly young people … and especially young people of color. And they swung the 2016 election as much as these white swing voters who had voted for Obama and then Trump.”

Kendi says the “prototypical swing voter” is one who swings from voting Republican to Democrat, and these voters are “almost totally white.” But these “other swing voters,” which he writes about in The Atlantic, could make or break a candidate’s chances.

Kendi argues that these other swing voters are often ignored because Americans have always valued white voters more than others.

“From the beginning of our republic, Americans have been standardizing and valuing white voters more than other groups," he says, "as opposed to seeking ways to value all voters equally, not only because we're committed to equity, but that's actually the way in which Democrats win.”

Interview Highlights 

On the significance of the other swing voters

“If you look, for instance, at the prototypical Obama to Trump voter — and many political analysts have talked about that they helped swing the 2016 election in favor of Trump — that was about 6 million voters. But 4.4 million Obama voters did not vote in 2016, and an additional 2.3 million Obama voters voted third party, which amounts to about 6.7 million voters, which actually are more than the number of people who voted for Obama and then Trump.”

On if the same category of voter exists on the Republican side 

“I think so. And so in other words, you have people who consider the Republican candidate, and if they don't like the Republican candidate, they don't vote. And so they swing between voting Republican or not voting at all. And this is a sizable number of Americans, too. And just as it's critical for Republicans to focus on those swing voters, it's critical for Democrats to focus on the people who swing from voting Democrat to not voting at all.”

On the impact of voter suppression on this group of voters

“When we look at, for instance, the prototypical other swing voter, again, the voter who's swinging from voting Democrat to not voting at all, even third party, these are typically young black voters. And then when we look at, for instance, who the Russians primarily targeted with trolling in the 2016 election, it was young black voters. When you look at who is most subjected to voter suppression policies, it's typically young voters of color. And so what happens is, if you are a young voter of color and you're not excited about the Democratic candidate, it makes it that much harder for you to vote for them if you also have to overcome voter suppression and trolling on social media.”

On why the Russian disinformation campaign targeted primarily young black voters

“They see these young black voters as swing voters. And they recognize by their not voting or by their voting third party, they can swing elections. And they recognize that these young black voters may not be excited about a moderate candidate that has a difficult racial record. And they can then expose and manipulate them into not voting by information or even disinformation about that particular candidate. And that's what happened in 2016.”

On how candidates could center on these other swing voters

“When you look at these young black voters or even young voters or even voters of color, you're talking about people who specifically, overwhelmingly support, for instance, $12 minimum wage. You're talking about people who actually in 2016, young black voters, their two major sort of issues that they thought that the country should be taking seriously were police brutality and racism. So you're talking about people who are very concerned about what the Democratic candidate is going to do to combat police brutality and racism. You're talking about people who generally support aggressive action against climate change. You're talking about people who generally have progressive ideas and want progressive policies.”

On which candidates have done the best job of targeting this group 

“The recent poll that came out ... that sort of assessed black voters and what candidate they were most likely to be supporting, of course, it was widely reported how ... Joe Biden was doing extremely well with every segment of black voters by large margins — except young black voters. That was the only sort of group of voters who he was behind and by double digits to Bernie Sanders. And so I think just like in the 2016 campaign in which young black voters were supportive of Bernie Sanders, they seemed to be very supportive of him as well. And again, these are swing voters, right? And so if they really like the candidate, they're more likely to vote than an older black voter who's more of a regular voter and is going to vote no matter the candidate.”

On concerns that focusing on other swing voters could isolate white voters

“I was studying some data that looked at those Obama to Trump voters who then voted Democrat in the 2018 midterm election. And it found that these voters again, and they were almost totally white, these white swing voters who voted for Obama than Trump than Democrat in 2018, were overwhelmingly in support of ‘Medicare for All.’ They were overwhelmingly in opposition to the Trump administration leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. They were overwhelmingly in support of a $12 minimum wage. They were overwhelmingly in support of a millionaire's tax. And ironically, their sort of rates of support or opposition to those policies were very similar to the support or opposition of other swing voters. And so you're talking about liberal and young white voters who swung for Trump that are actually very winnable for Democrats by putting forth policies and initiatives that will also win other swing voters.”

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 14, 2020.

Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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