Who are America’s Swing State Voters?

By Jon Winslow

In the 2004 election, political experts expect a set of "Swing States" to define the line between victory and defeat for Bush and Kerry.The handful of states, including Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, are considered undecided.That is, with the time before the election measured in days as opposed to weeks or months, the electoral votes of these states are still up for grabs - voters in these areas are deadlocked, split nearly down the middle between the two candidates.Similarly, MapInfo's research indicates that the vote may come down to the opinions of a handful of demographic groups - groups which are particularly split down the middle in terms of political views and opinions on the candidates.

Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio are critical because of their size.As high population states, they bring many electoral-college votes.From a demographic perspective, they are interesting as well.Geographically and culturally, they can be seen as a series of points that help to triangulate the new face of the American culture.

First off, there is Florida. Heavily Hispanic, highly mobile, culturally diverse - is the new U.S.Nearly one in five residents in Florida define themselves as Hispanic in ethnic origin, according to Census estimates.Partially as a result of the well-known elderly population in the Sunshine State, the demographics of the area also speak to a unique family pattern.Residents of Florida are more likely to share a home with non-relative householders and unmarried partners.They are more likely to live in non-family households, and less likely to live in families characterized as married couples with children. That said, characterizing Florida is nearly impossible.The statistics of the state as a whole lie about who the average citizen is.Cuban family? Mid-western retiree? What is clear is that the population is diverse - nearly 50% of the population was born outside the state.With so many having so recently relocated, Florida is a modern melting pot.A divide in political opinion is not unexpected.

Ohio and Pennsylvania?

The mixing in their melting pot stopped many years ago.While there was a time when the German, English, Polish and Irish populations may have separated like oil and water, time has joined those populations into a stable mix.Ohio and Pennsylvania are sibling states, sharing the same set of basic demographic characteristics. Eleven million residents, mostly white - 10% more than the US average -- with the remainder of the population being mostly Black.They are not Hispanic. They are not Asian.And they are not transplants from another county, state or even country.Even with apologies to the somewhat more diverse populations of Philadelphia, Cleveland and Pittsburg, the image many have of these two states - farms and factories, country roads surrounding 'tired' urban centers, has not changed in many years.

Given the apparent homogeneity of the sibling states, the divide on political opinion may seem strange.

Currently the Ohio Poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, has Bush and Kerry deadlocked with 48% of those polled supporting Kerry, 46% for Bush, and a dramatic 5% undecided as of October 17.In most cases, the candidates are scoring well in their areas of strength.Kerry is strongly favored in the urban counties; Bush more so in the suburban and the rural. Perhaps what makes the debate so feverish then is the fact that these two states, unlike neighbors Illinois and New York, are not so clearly urban, rural or suburban.In New York, there is no doubt, despite the rolling dairy farms of the upstate towns, New York City and its large population dominates the vote.The same can be said for Chicago and Illinois.

Philadelphia and Cleveland will vote strongly in support of Kerry.In 2000 Gore carried Philly by over 60%.But Philadelphia and Cleveland are not signature cities.The state is defined more by the smaller cities and towns, places that flourished once, places that were once Democratic Party strongholds with citizens expected to vote according to the objectives of their union bosses.These cities and towns are now up for grabs.

In 2000, Stark County, Ohio, was the 3rd largest county, with a visibly narrow split between Bush and Gore.The 2% difference in opinion between towns of greater than 150,000 population of the same general area is too fascinating to ignore.

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Using the neighborhood classification system designed by MapInfo, we profiled Stark County.We were able to create a PSYTE Advantage report to help us understand the demographic groups that characterize the area.This analysis from afar helps understand a microcosm that reflects the larger presidential debate.

Stark County is made up of 21 Minor Civil Divisions.The most recognizable name among them is the city of Canton, Ohio.Within those townships, there are six major neighborhood types with a population of over 10,000 households.They are:

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As with all of the PSYTE Advantage segments, the names of these neighborhood types are meant to be evocative.A moment of reflection on each is nearly enough to create a strong sense of place in the mind.'Rust Belt Blues' are neighborhoods with an older population living in older homes, those built in the 50's and 40's.They work in jobs that are related to manufacturing and production, and have a household income that ranks 25% below the US average. They are predominantly white.In fact, the likelihood of being Black or Hispanic or any other racial/ethnic background is dramatically low when seen as an index against the US average.This neighborhood scores an index of 22 for Hispanic origin - 78% lower than the US average - and 47 for Black, 53% lower than the average.

The residents of these neighborhoods are exactly the small city workers that once voted exclusively for the Democratic Party.These are also the voters who may be most torn in their loyalties today.The Ohio Poll notes that the voters in Ohio see the key issues in this election as being foreign policy and the economy.In fact, voters are split evenly at approximately 27% on which issue is more important.Healthcare is the next most important issue, followed by key cultural issues, including abortion, education and gay marriage.

With unemployment higher over the last five years than at any time in the last 10 years, the economy is a strong concern.We can assume, without certainty, that the factory workers in this neighborhood type are still likely to vote along union lines and will support the Democratic Party, if not Kerry himself, when it comes to the economy.But, if the economy is the number 1 issue for only 27% of Ohio voters, it is likely that large blocks of the Rust Belt workers will not vote on that issue alone.That leaves key issues such as foreign policy, homeland security and the cultural issues to decide the election among these voters.The jury is out on who can be the better leader with regard to foreign policy; however, given their conservative family values, many of these voters are likely to become 'Cultural Republicans.' That is, while disagreeing with Bush on economics, they will vote with him on issues related to gay marriage and abortion.

On the Quiet Streets nearby, income is higher, educational attainment is greater, and a greater percentage of residents are likely to have white-collar jobs, although nearly 50% are still employed in manufacturing. These residents are also likely to live in married couple families with kids present in their homes, 23% of which were built before 1939.For these voters, issues related to both the economy and homeland security seem very close to home.The married females in this cluster have school-age children.As a result, they may fall into the category of 'Security Moms,' women between 30 and 40 who will vote primarily on issues related to terrorism and crime.For these voters, Bush is a powerful choice.However, in these homes, with youngish, educated parents, Republican Party decisions on cultural issues may not ring quite as true.Many of the husbands and wives who live on these quiet streets went to college in nearby Columbus or Athens.Nearly 45% of the population over age 25 has some college education and over 15% have a bachelor's degree or better.These voters may have gone to school with gay men and women.They may have had friends who faced decisions on abortion.With the influence of their educational institutions still so temporally close, and the realization that a decision for a strong stand against terrorism may go hand in hand with a vote against reproductive choice or gay rights, the decision at the ballot box is not cut and dry.

Even the Empty Nesters in this area are likely to be split with regard to which candidate is best for them.Married couples with children out of the house care about their money.The Empty Nest East population, primarily married, college educated, homeowners, in some cases with dual incomes, make them slightly wealthier that the US average.However, these neighborhoods skew slightly older than the image the name evokes.For every few householders still earning an income, there is at least one household where the primary earner has retired.These folks worry even more about their dollars. Their older home on a tree-lined street may be their most significant financial asset, and as the economy around them slows down and home values stumble, they may worry about their cash flow.The promise of Medicare and Social Security payments is important to them, and each party's statements regarding the future of their monthly checks are listened to intently.Given the older nature of these neighborhoods, a vote for Bush is not guaranteed.Each hint Kerry drops about the imperiled future of the social security fund under the watch of a republican administration pushes at least a few of these voters further from Bush.For that reason, these neighborhoods are likely to be divided.The candidates' views on economics will strike a very direct chord with those retired and nearing so.

A search of Pennsylvania leads us to a number of counties, towns and neighborhoods that were close wins for either Gore or Bush in 2000.Gore won the 110 thousand plus voters of Lehigh County by 1,175 votes - 1%.Bucks County (250 thousand voters) went to Gore by a margin of 4%.Western counties like Cambria and Mercer were split by a difference of 1% to 3%, with one for Gore and one for Bush.Not surprisingly, these counties share a demographic profile that is very similar to Stark County.The three largest PSYTE Advantage clusters in Mercer County are Family Farm Belt, Plow and Plateau and Rust Belt Blues.In Cambria, the dominant groups are Rust Belt Blues, Extraction Action and Village Americana. The mix of rural farmers and old-town mills dominates these two counties, much like Stark.Lehigh and Bucks County are somewhat anomalous as a result of the presence of upscale suburbs, but these areas also include large populations of farmers and older cities in the form of the Home to Mama and Home Town Harbor and Rust Belt Blues.

Using MapInfo software and the PSYTE Advantage data, we were able to rank counties in Pennsylvania based on how well they compare to Stark on a relative basis.Some of the larger, higher population areas that most closely compare to Stark are listed in the table below.The 10 counties with over 25,000 households are listed below along with Philadelphia and Montgomery counties - which compare least favorably.

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Given this information, the Bush campaign should feel good about the areas that fall into their general comfort zone - small cities and rural area.Also, obviously, the larger urban areas are less worth pursuing. That leaves the middle ground open.

Lackawanna and Luzerne counties may represent that middle ground best.Over the last two weeks, Bush has visited the Scranton / Wilkes-Barre region twice.Although Bush lost Luzerne to Gore in 2000 by a margin of 9% and Lackawanna by 25%, his team clearly feels the area, with almost 200,000 plus voters, is worth an investment in 2004.This could be because the area's demographics lend themselves to the hope that Democratic Party voters and their historical support may be slipping.With nearly 100,000 voters, the impact of a win in Lackawanna County would be pronounced.

The three demographic groups most prevalent in Lackawanna County are Rust Belt Blues, Village Americana and Family Farm Belts.The top five clusters by households are listed in the table below.

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The major population areas of the area are Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Dunmore and Kingston. Together, they make up 32% of the total population.The predominant clusters in those areas are Rust Belt Blues (23,500 households), Village Americana (16,400), and Senior Circles (8,200).

As stated earlier, the Rust Belt Blues will be split. Cultural issues and foreign policy will fracture their historical Democratic Party preference.

Village Americana may follow suit even more strongly.In Village Americana, the peaceful solitude of quiet old towns may be a mask for growing resentment related to economic change - or the lack thereof.In these neighborhoods, the median household income is nearly 50% lower than the national average.Families tend to be 'broken' - there is a much higher incidence of divorce or separation.Those spouses who have not been divorced or separated are likely to have been widowed.Perhaps because the population skews toward retirement age, the population is 50% more likely to report its marital status as widowed.

In Village Americana, for every two owner occupied homes, there is one rented - usually a two unit rental or a mobile home.While 15% of the population does have a bachelor's degree, that is 50% less than the national average, and 18% of the population has no high school diploma.It is easy to glorify the quiet streets, the antique store, and the charm of the locally owned filling station or convenience store, but the charm is a mask for an economically declining area that often has little hope for rebound.

In these areas economic dissatisfaction may be too intense for any single party to be blamed.However, the blame will be felt and it will be bitter.Some will blame wealthy Republicans whose policies towards farms and workers may be unsatisfactory.Others will blame the Democratic party residents of nearby cities, where 'all our taxes go.' Another feeling as intense as economic dissatisfaction will be patriotic pride.The residents of these towns are likely to support the military, feverishly.Yellow ribbons, red-white-and-blue car decals, these are regular adornments here.Kerry's ability to convince the voters in these towns that he can be tough against Iraq and terrorism will be a critical issue - one he is not likely to win.This of course, will be somewhat tempered by social security and Medicare - which will also be influenced by cultural policy - gay marriage, abortion, etc.

In the end, the swing states will be won by victories in swing pockets of demographic divide.

The cities will go to Kerry.The farms will go to Bush.The small towns of Pennsylvania and the surrounding villages are where the battle will be won.The handful of demographic groups that live there, Rust Belt Blues, Quiet Streets, Village Americana, cannot be counted on to vote en-bloc for either party.We know who they are, we know what is important to them, and we can paint a vivid picture of their lives.But we cannot define the strengths of their opinions, which are as varied as the culture they are the face for - yesterday's America.

Published Thursday, October 28th, 2004

Written by Jon Winslow

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