Just before launching his campaign in December of 2014, former Gov. Jeb Bush famously said that a presidential candidate needed to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general,” a position informed by his experience as a swing state governor. Fifteen months and one feisty billionaire later, Bush’s campaign is over but his hypothesis is about to be tested.
On Tuesday, three critical general election swing states will hold presidential primaries: Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. As the candidates’ speeches and ads hit talking points tailored to fire up the base of each party, they risk alienating the moderates and independents they’ll need to win in November. How will the future president-elect thread this political needle, or is he or she counting on the short memories of voters for divisive rhetoric and proposals?
Florida. Swing voters are more than twice as likely to prefer candidates who can work with the other party to, you know, actually govern. Bipartisanship is only important to 8 percent of Florida GOP primary participants, so that’s not a key factor in March. Democrat’s blind spots are balancing the budget and government spending – both of which are twice as important to swing voters as to those implored to “Feel the Bern.” And health care policy is a critical factor for 39 percent more swing voters than for GOP primary voters, whose party has voted dozens of times to trash Obamacare without proposing a clear alternative.
North Carolina. The nominating conventions will coincide with hurricane season in North Carolina, which is grappling with increased vulnerability to strengthening storms fueled by climate change. Almost a third of Tar Heel swing voters will select a candidate based on environmental policy – 2.3 times more than GOP primary voters, only one of whose candidates (Kasich) has called for action to address climate change and rising sea levels. But Democratic voters may be missing the boat on defense and homeland security, big industries in the Carolinas, and are about twice as important to North Carolina swing voters. Finally, while GOP debates are using grade school level vocabulary, what they will need to start discussing is education policy, which is 70 percent more important to swing voters than those of the GOP primary.
Ohio. The Buckeye State may have a deep history in heavy industry and be a large producer and consumer of coal, but environmental policy is almost four times more important to its swing voters than participants in the GOP primary. Many industrial jobs are also at risk, putting job creation on the priority list for 46 percent of swing voters, which is more than either party’s partisans, but 82 percent more than the GOPs. But these “swingers” are more fiscally conservative than Democratic voters, and are 89 percent more concerned about government spending.
For these moderate voters, March isn’t the time to search candidate Web sites for policy details on the environment, education and the federal budget. But it’s a fascinating time to listen to the promises and priorities being claimed on the primary campaign trail. Between the anatomical references and counter-factual claims, you may hear previews of the fall campaign, or at least previews of the attack ads each party will run quoting the “extreme” positions each candidate took in March.
This column by SVP & Chief Analytics Officer Michael Horn originally appeared in USNews.