Frames for the Swings

Recent polls confirm that the country is as divided as ever -- along party lines, along ideological lines. The country is also divided on the question of whether the economy and jobs are more important that homeland security and terrorism. A Pew Center survey of registered voters conducted in late March found Bush and Kerry statistically tied (Kerry 47%, Bush 46%) but only 38% of those preferring Kerry and 36% of those preferring Bush claimed there was no chance that they would vote for the other candidate. The remaining 26% either indicated that they could change their minds, or were truly undecided. With the nation so polarized, the undecided voters may hold the key to the election.

A survey of undecided likely voters conducted by Rasmussen Reports in March found that 59% did not label themselves as Democrat or Republican, and 46% identified themselves as moderates. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in early March found that 60% of independents said "we need to elect a president who can set the nation in a new direction." That finding was confirmed by a Los Angeles Times poll conducted March 27 - 30, which found that 61% of self-described independents said that the nation was headed in the wrong direction, as did 55% of those who called themselves moderates.

Asked what the nation's most important problem was, 48% of independents identified the economy or jobs, while 45% selected national security issues (terrorism, homeland security, war in Iraq). Moderates favored the economy over national security by 52 - 39%.

Although the Pew Center found that swing voters had difficulty evaluating the candidates on issues like trade or health care policies, a survey published in March by the Commonwealth Fund, found that candidates' views on health care reform would be an important factor in how a majority of voters made their choice. 69% of Democrats, 56% of independents, and 60% of those who did not indicate a political affiliation said the issue was very important, compared to 45% of Republicans. 62% of those surveyed said they would be willing to give up the entire Bush tax cut "in order to help guarantee health insurance security for everyone." This view was held by 77% of Democrats, 64% of independents, and 54% of those who did not indicate a political affiliation, compared to 43% of Republicans. Support for a partial repeal was stronger and cut across all income brackets; 63% of respondents with annual household incomes greater than $100,000 supported limiting the tax cut to $1,000 per person. The Commonwealth Fund survey report noted, "The unique way in which coverage is currently financed in the United States—a combination of individual, employer, and government contributions—appears to be the favored approach
among Americans."

The LA Times found that both independents and moderates disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin, with more than 40% expressing strong disapproval. Something over half of the independents and moderates surveyed felt that the economy was doing badly, although more said it was doing "fairly badly" than "very badly." A somewhat smaller percentage of both groups said Bush policies had made them less prosperous, but about twice as many respondents said they were less prosperous than said they were more prosperous. Nonetheless, the Pew Center survey found that 39% of swing voters could not decide which candidate would do a better job improving economic conditions.

Independents and moderates split on approval or disapproval of Bush's handling of his job as president, although those who disapproved felt more strongly than those who approved. 51% of independents and 53% of moderates reported an unfavorable view of Bush, while approximately the same percentages of each group had a favorable view of Kerry. Similarly, 51% of independents and 53% of moderates identified John Kerry as someone who "cares about people like me," compared to 22% and 25% for Bush.

The Washington Post March 9 survey found that 64% of independents disagreed with the statement that Bush "understands the problems of people like you." And in one particularly telling measure, respondents overall were nearly evenly divided on whether Bush had done more to unite or divide the nation. More than 70% of Democrats said "divide;" more than 70% of Republicans said "unite;" independents were evenly divided.

In the LA Times survey, Both independents and moderates identified Bush as someone who "has good judgment in a crisis."

When asked to identify the candidate who "flip flops on the issues" independents chose Kerry by a 6% margin, while moderates chose Bush by 38% to 28%.

By a narrow margin (5%) independents surveyed said they would vote for Kerry; moderates supported Kerry 58% to 33% for Bush.

Both groups were evenly divided as to whether "the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over," but by a large margin (> 30%) said that the Bush policies on terrorism had made the country more secure (although more said "somewhat secure" than "much more secure").

Nearly 60% of independents and 54% of moderates in the LA Times poll agreed that Bush failed to take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before September 11, 2001, however. A slightly higher percentage of each group agreed that Bush was more focused on attacking Iraq than dealing with terrorism. And while approximately the same percentages agreed that Richard Clarke's book is politically motivated, more than half of the independents and a plurality of the moderates surveyed did not feel that Clarke's attacks were a response to not being appointed secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

A mid-March Pew Center survey found 72% of swing voters saying that Bush would be more likely than Kerry to defend the US from future terrorist attacks. By late March -- presumably reflecting the effect of the public 9/11 commission hearings -- that number dropped to 50%. At the same time, "[t]he proportion of swing voters who don't see either candidate as better on terrorism more than doubled from 17% to 37%...."

Pendulum Swing

The poll results were borne out in dozens of interviews of undecided voters that the New York Times conducted in Ohio in late March. One example was lifelong Republican Judy Pappas, a 58-year old legal secretary from Columbus, OH, who voted for Bush but found herself questioning Bush's rush to war in Iraq. As it did for other undecided voters, Richard Clarke's testimony only strengthened her uncertainty about Bush. "Do I believe Clarke? Yes, I do," Pappas told the Times. Like Pappas, retired school superintendent Elmo Kallner said he was disappointed in Bush's handling of Iraq but not ready to commit to Kerry. "It comes down to the guy I'm going to trust for the next four years," Kallner said.

Other Columbus voters who had supported Bush in 2000 said their opinions had changed. Investment banker Tim Long told the Times that he was bothered by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. "When he went in there, I said I trust him, I'm assuming I know what he's doing, I'm assuming he knows more than we're being told. At the end of the day, he misled us," he said. Long was also offended by the Bush administration's response to the Clarke book, and particularly its resistance to allowing National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the 9/11 commission. "You can only assume she has something to hide. She's on every talk show otherwise," he said, adding that the episode had damaged Bush's credibility. "He's kind of condescending and not sincere, which surprised me. I thought he'd be someone you'd definitely be able to trust. I had based it on his father. He's very different from his father."

Some undecideds interviewed by the Times pointed to administration contradictions in their response to Mr. Clarke's allegations. "They say he's out of the loop," he said. "Why is he out of the loop? The counterterrorism chief is out of the loop?"

As reflected in the polls, some voters said they supported Bush because of his conduct of the war on terrorism. Others wanted more details from Kerry. ". "John Kerry would have to give me more concrete plans on the economy, on terrorism. I haven't heard anything specific enough, just a lot of blaming," Jan Bowen told the Times. For others, support for Bush's record on terrorism was moderated by a concern for the economy. "I think Bush is the person we need in there," said Rod Pritchard, a worker with the Columbus housing program for the elderly. "But I don't know. I'm still really concerned with the economy. Kerry's record in the Senate worries me."

Still others, like Brenda Bailey, a 43-year old mother of two from Grove City, questioned whether concerns about terrorism would be much of a factor. "A half-dozen engineers who have lost their jobs, people who thought they had it made, were living the good life. A lot of people are feeling the pinch, feeling this looming threat that they may not have a job in a year."

Swing States

Strategists in both parties have used voting patterns in the 2000 election as a starting point for 2004. While the prior presidential election might always be employed as a guide to the current election, the very close election in 2000 means that polling data from that election provide what the Atlantic's Joshua Green called "a demographic snapshot of a nation in perfect balance." In the 2000 election twelve states were decided by fewer than five percentage points. Those states and a few others comprise the battleground this year: Oregon and Washington in the Northwest; Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico in the Southwest; Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia in the Rust Belt; Florida and New Hampshire on the East Coast; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Missouri along the Mississippi.

Of those states, ten are seen by Democratic and Republican strategists as the most competitive. States that went for Bush in 2000 that are most vulnerable are: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire and Nevada. States that went for Gore that are most vulnerable are: Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

In mid-March, Democratic strategists told the Washington Post that they viewed as a prime target any toss-up state from the 2000 election that has had a net job loss, or an unemployment rate higher than the national average. Job losses have affected the Midwest more than other contested areas. Among these states is Ohio, which Bush won by 4 percentage points. A mid-March poll by Rasmussen Reports showed Kerry leading Bush in Ohio by the same margin (45% to 41%). Job losses could also make it more difficult for Bush to win in Michigan and Pennsylvania -- both contested states that went narrowly to Gore in 2000 -- although in March Rasmussen Reports found Pennsylvania a toss-up (Kerry 45%, Bush 44%).

Who Are These People

The importance of swing voters was given additional emphasis by the 2002 midterm elections. In 1996, 1998, and 2000 Democrats were on balance more successful in promoting large turnouts by the party faithful on Election Day. In 2002, however, the Republicans beat the Democrats at their own game. As a result the so-called "persuadables," or undecided voters, have become the object of focused efforts by both parties.

The Rasmussen Reports March survey of undecided voters found that:

  • 60% do not approve of the job Bush is doing
  • 52% are women, 48% are men.
  • 38% are under 40; 39% are 40-64; and 13% are over 65.
  • 74% are white.
  • 49% own at least $5,000 worth of stocks, bonds, or mutual funds
  • 46% are moderate, 30% are conservative, and 22% are liberal
  • 46% say the President is conservative while 24% say moderate. 35% identify Kerry as liberal, while 36% say moderate.
  • If forced to choose between Bush and Kerry, 23% choose Bush, 35% Kerry, and 42% cannot choose.

Rasmussen Reports also analyzed voters who supported a candidate but said they could change their mind. These are known as "soft supporters." "Soft" support for Kerry was found to be evenly split between voters who identified themselves as conservative and those who identified themselves as liberal.

  • 56% of Kerry's soft supporters invest the stock market
  • 58% of Kerry's soft support is from women
  • Soft support seems to be related to middle-of-the-road assessments of Bush's job performance. Nearly 70% of soft support for Bush or Kerry was from voters who only "somewhat" approved or disapproved of the job Bush is doing.

Broad categorizations of undecided voters are no longer sufficient, however. To try to get a more detailed picture, both parties have acquired and constructed databases of more than 150 million voters. The Democratic version, affectionately known as "Data Mart" combines information from voter files, consumer databases, and other sources. More than 300 "lifestyle variables," are associated with each voter, including details such as number of children, kind of car, favorite periodicals and television programs. The detailed information offers campaign strategists the potential of being able to predict which issues will matter to particular individuals, and also what method of contacting them might be more likely to succeed.

Last year the New Democrat Network (NDN), described by Green as a "centrist political organization" commissioned "an exhaustive survey research study of the electorate. This was not just a political analysis of the American electorate. Rather, it dug deeper to examine voters’ personalities and lifestyles in order to place their political views in context and to better identify which voters are up for grabs and how to capture their loyalties." While suggesting that attracting undecided voters was the key not just to the 2004 election, but to "sustain progressive politics beyond the next election," the NDN report warned that there are "significant demographic differences between Democratic base voters who are economically and educationally somewhat downscale (compared to national averages) and swing voters who are relatively more upscale and markedly younger than the average voter."

[Undecided voters] heading into the 2004 election tend to be married parents who work hard and participate in their community, but are less connected to the political process than base voters. They work with computers and use the Internet. They are concerned about retirement and how to care for their parents. They admire people who serve in uniform; they are religious; and they do not believe that large American corporations pay their fair share in taxes.

The report characterized undecided voters further:

  • A majority are married; 38% have young children at home
  • There are fewer seniors among undecideds (14%) than among the base voters of either party (21% of Republicans, 24% of Democrats)
  • They are active volunteers in their communities, but are less engaged in politics than base voters
  • Although they care deeply about their families, most are workaholics
  • They are more likely than others to use computers and the Internet
  • 70% have living parents, and 46% are concerned about caring for them
  • 79% admire people who serve in uniform
  • 53% believe that large US corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes
  • More than half say they worry about retirement and expect to be able to rely on Social Security when they retire.
  • They get their news from CNN and other sources rather than Fox News, and they like the "West Wing" TV drama.
  • By a ratio of almost 2:1 they prefer country music radio to the next most popular format, which is talk radio. (By contrast among Democrats country music is only slightly preferred to news and sports or hard rock; Republicans are evenly divided between preferring country music and talk radio.)

The NDN study identified four issues where voters who were disinclined to vote for Bush wanted more effort from government:

  • Affordable healthcare
  • Strong Medicare and Social Security programs
  • Help for the middle class
  • Expanding prosperity

The report also identified government support for protecting the environment and protecting civil rights as the issues on which independents disagreed most strongly with Republicans.

Many swing voters live in the suburbs and in small cities. Suburban women already tend to vote Democratic, but Bush won the suburban vote in the 2000 election. Hence, Democrats must make special efforts to appeal to men, who currently prefer Republicans to Democrats by a margin of 19%. Gun control is one area where this concern is being addressed. This is not just a question of policy positions but of "framing." Some observers believe that Gore lost the blue collar vote in West Virginia because the way he talked about gun control made gun owners think he would take their guns away. Pollsters learned after-the-fact that if Gore had framed his position within an acknowledgement of the Second Amendment right to bear arms (for example with the phrase "with rights come responsibilities,") 20% of gun owners (7% of voters) might have voted Democratic.

Frames for the Swings

The West Virginia experience illustrates the importance of something that the Kerry campaign and Democrats must do to reach voters in general, and undecideds in particular. They must "frame" issues so that the voters they're trying to reach see the candidate's position as consistent with his own values and the values of the voter. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff has written extensively on the topic of "framing." Lakoff calls a frame a "conceptual framework." Over the last 30 years, Lakoff told a reporter for the UC Berkeley News last fall, conservative foundations have given billions of dollars to think tanks to build an infrastructure for refining and communicating conservative ideas.

... [T]hey build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system, which I analyzed in Moral Politics, has as its highest value preserving and defending the "strict father" system itself. And that means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this very well.

Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better.

Lakoff cited "tax relief" as an example of conservative framing. The frame for "relief," Lakoff suggested, implies an affliction, an afflicted party, someone who administers relief, and the act of relieving the affliction. The person administering relief is a hero, and anyone interfering is bad. If one then adds "tax" to "relief," tax is identified with an affliction, and anyone interfering with tax relief is bad.

Lakoff suggested that taxes might be reframed as "Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity...." Framed in this way, taxes become patriotic duty. Lakoff cited the huge infrastructure built by government investment of taxpayer money: highways, the Internet, broadcast media, public education, scientific research. Moreover, he noted, there are parts of the infrastructure that are more heavily used by wealthier individuals. "The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we're all paying for it," he said.

"Gay marriage," said Lakoff was another example. Surveys have shown that a large majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, but also oppose discrimination against gays. "'Marriage' is about sex," Lakoff suggested. "When you say 'gay marriage,' it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex." But while many Americans might not approve of gay sex, that doesn't mean they encourage discrimination against gays. If the issue were framed as "the right to marry," Lakoff posited, few people would say they opposed the right to marry whomever one chooses.

Lakoff was not optimistic about Democrats being able to match the well-funded time-tested conservative efforts at framing issues and political discussions. Speaking in October 2003, Lakoff said, "The progressives don't have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able to reference them in a sound bite." He accused the Democratic party of focusing too much on marketing, running on the issues that sell best across the spectrum. "They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues...."

Lakoff's criticism was echoed by Bruce Reed, who was domestic policy advisor for Bill Clinton. "We're a party that prefers to talk about issues, not values. Clinton demonstrated that if we want to expand our reach, we have to talk in terms of values." Part of Clinton's success, Reed suggested, was being able to redeploy conservative terminology in support of his own programs, such as family and medical leave.

Right, Wrong, or Left

A CNN Gallup poll conducted in early March found that a sizeable majority (approximately 60%) of those surveyed did not feel that either candidate was attacking the other unfairly. But by late March some political analysts expressed concern that negative political advertising could alienate voters. "If it maintains for seven months as negative as it is now, I'm worried the campaign will turn voters off," Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California told the Contra Costa Times. Alan Lichtman, professor of history at American University in Washington, DC agreed. "This is what voters hate," he said. "It's one of the reasons why we have such low turnout in America." While some observers argued that voters were likely to continue to follow the campaigns closely, Bruce Reed pointed to lessons learned from the Democratic primary. During the primary, Reed wrote for the New Democrats Online "Blueprint", "Democrats were presented a clear choice: whether to continue Clintonism, with its pragmatic emphasis on offering positive solutions that excite Democrats and independents alike, or to revert to the party's old ways of running on anger instead of ideas -- a narrow appeal to the Democratic base. You won because once again, rank-and-file Democrats made the right choice."

As Republicans launch what may become the nastiest sustained attack in decades, Democrats should take the lesson of the primaries to heart. Don't let the attacks go unanswered, but don't fall into the trap of letting them set the tone and context of the debate, either. You offer the American people what Bush will not: the answers they deserve and the change they long for.

In an interview with, Lakoff agreed. "...Simply saying, "I am against this," does not necessarily communicate effectively. You have to frame things in terms of what you are for. That doesn't mean you can't attack, it doesn't mean you can't say negative things, but the question is how you say negative things...." One way of doing this, Lakoff suggested, was simply by implication. For example, if a candidate says that he is responsible, by implication the opponent is irresponsible.

Lakoff has suggested that conservative and progressive politics result from different models of the ideal family, mapped on to the nation. The progressive model assumes that the world should be a nurturant place, that the job of parents is to raise nurturers, that to be a nurturer one must be empathetic and responsible for yourself an others.
In an article that appeared in The American Prospect in September 2003 Lakoff wrote:

In this view, the job of government is to care for, serve and protect the population (especially those who are helpless), to guarantee democracy (the equal sharing of political power), to promote the well-being of all and to ensure fairness for all. The economy should be a means to these moral ends. There should be openness in government. Nature is seen as a source of nurture to be respected and preserved. Empathy and responsibility are to be promoted in every area of life, public and private. Art and education are parts of self-fulfillment and therefore moral necessities.

Lakoff proposed five categories of progressive policy that are rooted in progressive morality.

  • Safety: secure harbors, industrial facilities and cities, but also safe neighborhoods (community policing), schools (gun control), air, water and food (poison-free environment). Safety also implies health care for all, including pre- and post-natal care, preventive medicine, and care for the elderly (Medicare, Social Security).
  • Freedom: Civil liberties should be protected and extended. Under the moral issue of freedom Lakoff includes individual issues such as gay rights, affirmative action, women's rights, etc. Freedom also includes the freedom of motherhood: a women's freedom to decide whether to be a mother, when and with whom. Freedom also requires that the media be open to everyone. Airwaves must be kept public, and media monopolies broken up (Murdoch, Clear Channel).
  • A moral economy: Prosperity is for all. Government investments should be for the public good. A moral economy requires corporate reform: honest bookkeeping, not poisoning the environment, not exploiting labor (workplace safety, living wages). Corporations are chartered by the public, and should be accountable to the public. Corporations should maximize stakeholder well-being, including employees, the community, and the environment, rather than just maximizing shareholder value.
  • Global cooperation: The be a good citizen of the world, maximizing cooperation with other governments rather than just its wealth and military power. The same values we recognize domestically should be promoted internationally: women's and children's rights, education, labor rights, help for the hungry and the poor.
  • The Future: Our children's future is at the heart of progressive values -- their education, health, the natural and political environment they will inherit. Issues range from education (class size, teacher salaries), to the federal deficit, to global warming, health (will they be poisoned by current policies, will there be health care for them).

"To articulate these themes and strategic initiatives, using government as an instrument of common purpose," Lakoff urged, "we have to set aside petty local interests, work together and emphasize what unites us. Defeating radical conservatism gives us a negative impetus, but we will not succeed without a positive vision and cooperation."

Lakoff has voiced disagreement with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) because it has urged candidates to "move to the right to get more voters." Liberal candidates or conservative candidates, suggested Lakoff, would not get less than around 34% of the vote. But the voters "in the middle" are not really "in the middle."

Democrats have been subject to a major fallacy: Voters are lined up left to right according to their views on issues, the thinking goes, and Democrats can get more voters by moving to the right. But the Republicans have not been getting more voters by moving to the left. What they do is stick to their strict ideology and activate their model among swing voters who have both models. They do this by being clear and issuing consistent messages framed in terms of conservative values. The moral is this: Voters are not on a left-to-right line; there is no middle.

Swing voters, Lakoff suggested, use both progressive and conservative worldviews, or conceptual models, but in different parts of their lives. The challenge to progressive candidates is to talk in a way that "activates the progressive worldview," and help voters apply that worldview to a range of issues.

Despite close ties to the DLC, Bruce Reed comes close to Lakoff's perspective when he urges Kerry to

... define yourself on your own terms, not theirs. As the 1988 campaign showed, Democrats often try to dispel uncomfortable stereotypes -- on guns, taxes, and national security -- by avoiding the subjects altogether.... If you want to keep Republicans from filling in the blanks, don't leave any.

Lakoff seems to offer the same advice:

Here is a cognitive scientist's advice to progressive Democrats: Articulate your ideals, frame what you believe effectively, say what you believe and say it well, strongly and with moral fervor.


Pinkus, Susan "Will Economy of Protecting the Homeland Decide Presidential Race in November" Los Angeles Times 31 Mar. 2004
"46% of Swing Voters are Politically Moderate" Rasmussen Reports. 14 Mar. 2004

"Soft Supporters Challenge for Kerry" Rasmussen Reports. 16 Mar. 2004

"Bush Support Steady in Wake of Clarke Criticisms" The Pew Research Center. 29 Mar. 2004

Zernike, Kate "Storm Over 9/11 Leaves Swing Voters Feeling Less Certain Still" NY Times 1 Apr. 2004

Penn, Mark and Pete Brodnitz The Door Is Open: Identifying Opportunities for Democrats NDN. 7 Aug. 2003

Collins, Sara R., et al. The Affordability Crisis in U.S. Health Care The Commonwealth Fund. Mar. 2004

"Poll: Health Care Key Issue in '04 Election" Palm Beach Post 29 Mar. 2004

Balz, Dan and Jim VandeHei"Candidates Narrow Focus to 18 States" Washington Post 15 Mar. 2004

Morin, Richard and Dana Milbank "Support for Bush Falls on Economy and Iraq" Washington Post 9 Mar. 2004

Hines, Cragg "GOP learns Bush, gasp, is the problem" Houston Chronicle 9 Mar. 2004

Powell, Bonnie Azab "Framing the issues" UC Berkeley News 27 Oct. 2003

Kleffman, Sandy "A marathon race"Contra Costa Times 13 Mar. 2004

Reed, Bruce and Al From "The Road to Victory" Blueprint 2004.1.

Basco, Sharon "The Moral Imperative" 9 May 2003

Lakoff, George "Framing the Dems" American Prospect 1 Sep. 2003

See also Don Hazen's column The Frame on