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Understanding the Swinging Voter

Next up at CMPM2014 is Edwina Throsby, whose focus is on swinging voters. These are important figures in Australian politics, and seen as determining party policies and deciding elections; the fact that Australia has compulsory voting also makes their position very special in an international context.

There are plenty of assumptions about who these swinging voters are, and how they might be targetted by political campaigning – and indeed most campaigns are squarely focussed on this group. But such targetting has become increasingly difficult in recent years: while campaigners continue to believe that they can be targetted as a bloc, they also acknowledge that to define and target this cohort is now very difficult.

Such swinging voters are sometimes seen as unprincipled, apolitical and disengaged, or at best as calculating or capricious; conversely, they are also acknowledged as the group which ends up deciding who will govern the country, and who are therefore important and critical. Political operatives in Australia still largely hold negative views, but also acknowledge the substantial diversity within this group.

Undecided voters do not necessarily conform to this perception – they are often quite well-informed, rather than politically disengaged; they are also often younger voters, as political opinions appear to settle and harden with age. Many such voters self-identify as swinging voters, even in spite of the continuing derogatory use of the term.

Political content in the Australian media has declined over the past twenty years, and the media environment has fragmented. Political leaders are also seen as more cautious and lacking in defining features, making political coverage duller. This means that some of the meaningful political content is now in traditionally non-political media, from Sunrise to The Project.

Some scholars are seeing this as a weakening of political information and communication, but entertainment formats are not necessarily and inherently dumbed down; the success of Oprah and The Daily Show in the US in tackling political issues is a symbol of this. But in these shows personality and emotion also play a part, which adds further focus on the personal characteristics of the leading candidates; and the same increasingly also applies to the use of social media in political contexts.

Campaigners are therefore slowly moving away from working with stereotypical, identikit descriptions of swinging voters, and are embracing more complex, evidence- and data-based ways of understanding swinging voters.