The Changing Times and the Equinox Voter

We at Zogby International are always looking for new ways to understand the American voter, and in that endeavor, what we have found is that the old political paradigms just don't work today. For instance, we are thinking that the Red State vs. Blue State phenomenon may pass into history this year, with so many states being in play.

We've said right along -- including in this column -- that instead, this is a year to watch the swing voter and the centrist voter, who are back after a hiatus. There is evidence that these independent, centrist voters are going to play a big part in the presidential elections, but what does that mean? Who are these people? Have they changed much over the last decade? Who will they support this fall?

There has been lots of talk about white ethnic voters or the white working-class voters. These are the people who, on the Democratic side of the aisle, gave Hillary Clinton her substantial primary election wins over Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. These are the former Reagan Democrats who had supported Bill Clinton but who have since climbed up onto the political fence to sit for a spell.

Can Obama win this group in November? Well, he didn't this spring, so that's our first clue. Another is the fact that neither Al Gore nor John Kerry won their support. It is a safe guess to say Obama would be in the same situation. If he is to avoid the same electoral fate as was suffered by Gore and Kerry, he must find other voters elsewhere.

But can he find enough voters elsewhere to make up for the loss of that voter bloc? Perhaps. This year we are looking at increased turnout among minorities, including Latino turnout, because of the immigration issue and an expected very large turnout of younger voters.

Incidentally, young people turned out in 2004. They maintained their percentage, about 20% of the total vote, from 2000 and 2004. The problem for the Democrats is that everyone else turned out, too. This time we're looking at young people perhaps to be 22-23% of the total vote and Obama doing particularly well. And I should say they were 20% of 105 million in 2000, 20% of 122 million in 2004 -- this year we're looking at 130-135 million voters, so that 22-23% of the total is significant, as is a heightened turnout of blacks and Latinos.

We're working to identify the earmarks of two new kinds of voters -- we call them the Equinox Voters, because they fall into two distinct groups: the "Spring-Aheads" and the "Fall-Backers."

The Spring-Aheads are the economic winners in America today, who largely reside in regions that have turned themselves around. They are the reason that southern New Hampshire, central and southwestern North Carolina, southern Florida, Colorado, parts of New Mexico -- even growing parts of Wyoming and Montana -- may be considered in play this election cycle. These are areas growing in diversity, in the population of the "creative class," and, for the Democrats, these are the areas that are the antidote to the areas mired in economic decline.

Those are the areas populated by many Fall Backers who have suffered at the hands of the changes in the U.S. economy over the past 15 years. They have not been able to recover from the movement from a manufacturing to an information economy. They are working for less money than they made a decade ago, and include those with uncertain futures and those who are concerned about maintaining a middle-class status. Those who fit this bill, historically, are less open to diversity. They are concerned about minorities because they represent a challenge in the workplace and elsewhere.

Fall Backers can be found in central and western Pennsylvania, the northern tier of Ohio, the southern tier of Indiana, and West Virginia. They can also be found in pockets in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as in some parts of other Midwestern states.

The Equinox voters carry with them a political irony. That is that Fall Backers used to be Democrats, because Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, of the working class. But now, they are identifying in greater numbers with Republican ideas and proposals. Meanwhile, the Spring Aheads would traditionally be Republicans -- entrepreneurs and the party of the burgeoning voters on the move.

So what's behind this flip? What's making the Republicans more attractive to the economic losers and the Democrats the party of the economic winners? With an economy that's still in transition, Republicans have still not quite adjusted. In many ways, this is old economy vs. new economy.

I regularly speak to the National Association of Manufacturers; they're Republicans. Old economy is Republicans. You go to Palo Alto or Boston, they're Democrats, that's new economy. That's one part of it. Another factor is that is that when arguments go beyond economy, when people don't have a way of understanding what's happening in their world, there's a tendency to fall backward into tradition, to find scapegoats in immigrants, on race, on gays, or on anything that people perceive is making their world different.

At Zogby, we're asking the kinds of questions that probe this new Equinox Voters paradigm to truly understand this election. Stay tuned for what we find out.