Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: The rise of a new Hoosier swing voter

March 30, 2013

Jennifer WagnerQuick, describe a Hoosier swing voter.

White, married, middle-class male from southern Indiana, somewhere between 35 and 55 years old, right?

Nope.

The new swing voter in Indiana looks like me—a 30-something mom—who lives in the counties surrounding Indianapolis. And that’s going to change the way we run campaigns.

Before we get into the numbers, let’s start with this premise: Indiana is a red state. Our election cycles typically start with at least a six-point GOP advantage.

But the wonderful thing about Hoosiers is our willingness to listen and be persuaded.

Democrats who win statewide depend on persuadable voters to tip the scales, and southern Indiana used to be the place to find them.

The data from the 2012 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races tell an evolving story.

By the numbers, Joe Donnelly beat Richard Mourdock by roughly 148,000 votes. Mike Pence got about 75,000 more votes than John Gregg.

While neither Donnelly nor Gregg won any of the so-called doughnut counties around Indianapolis, Donnelly earned almost 21,000 more votes than Gregg in those counties. It’s worth noting that Donnelly also received almost 18,000 more votes than Gregg in Marion County. Those votes add up.

Looking at the data another way, Donnelly earned 38 percent of the vote in the doughnut counties compared with 32 percent for Gregg and 31 percent for President Obama. Glenda Ritz, who upset Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, received nearly 41 percent.

Clearly, the electorate around Indianapolis is persuadable.

Things get really interesting when you bring in exit polling data.

In the Senate race, women voted for Donnelly over Mourdock by a 12-point margin (53-41 percent). Donnelly won 48 percent of white females to Mourdock’s 46 percent. Donnelly performed extremely well in the 30-44 age range.

In the gubernatorial race, women supported Gregg over Pence 52-47, but white women voted for Pence over Gregg by eight points (53-45). Voter age was not a strong factor.

When you analyze these numbers alongside census data showing a higher percentage of white residents in the doughnut counties than the statewide average, you begin to see the profile of a newly persuadable electorate.

It might be tempting to dismiss the $50 million Senate race as an outlier. After all, Mourdock imploded in the final weeks of the campaign with comments that very much alienated women.

But Democrats have won statewide before, and Ritz, with a significant funding disadvantage, was still able to win by capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the incumbent.

Well-managed campaigns use data-driven methodology to identify swing voters and persuade them with well-crafted messages.

The emergence of a thoughtful suburban female electorate could change both what candidates talk about and how they say it, affecting every issue from marriage equality to education to gun safety to mass transit.

Most reflective of this new demographic is congresswoman Susan Brooks, who represents the suburbs north of Indianapolis as well as more rural areas. She defeated an all-male field, including a former congressman, in the primary last year.

Brooks is a moderate, but she’ll have to walk a fine line in Congress to maintain her moderate record without attracting a serious challenge from the right.

After all, divisive in-fighting felled former Sen. Richard Lugar last May, paving the way for a moderate Democrat to win in November with help from strong Democratic counties like Lake and Marion and persuadable suburban women who were paying close attention to the candidates and issues.

Here’s to the ladies who vote.•

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Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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