Inattentive voters today see as much difference between the two parties as partisans in 1960.
What is driving the decline in swing voters? Smidt shows that voters are increasingly cognizant of the sharp differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. In fact, a politically inattentive and unengaged American today is as likely to perceive important differences between the parties as a very engaged American was in 1960.
By making it easy for Americans to recognize party differences, polarization has reduced ambivalence and indecisiveness and provided a strong and consistent ideological anchor to Americans’ presidential preferences across time, even for independents and the less aware.
One implication, Smidt notes, is that American voters should be less responsive to election-year forces, like shifts in the economy or other important events. Another is that politicians have less incentive to appeal to swing voters and more incentive to appeal to their loyal supporters.
Of course, shifts in the economy and swing voters could be decisive in 2016 if the election is close enough. But most American voters will supply little in the way of drama or excitement. Predictable partisanship is increasingly the norm.
See also Party Polarization: The Voting Gap