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Coin Flipping Voters

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Would you hire someone to work for you by flipping a coin? Of course not. How about flipping a coin to decide who represents you in Congress or the state legislature?  It sounds crazy, but that’s essentially what lots of Californians do when they vote for a candidate. They perform the voting equivalent of flipping a coin when hiring someone to represent them in public office.

Throughout my years of experience with Competitive Edge Communication & Research conducting political research and analyzing election results, I’ve identified voters who know almost nothing about both candidates in a two candidate race. However, they consider voting — all the way down the ballot — their civic duty. These folks wind up on Election Day with no real impression of the legislators, Mayors, judges and other offices regardless, yet they cast votes for them nonetheless.

This is why I call this group of voters “coin flippers.” Some might call these people “low-information voters,” but that might be generous. By definition, a low-information voter has some real knowledge of at least one of the candidates.  The definition of a coin-flipper is a voter who doesn’t know enough about the candidates to have an opinion about either of them.  Depending on the election and the office, they can comprise up to 20 percent of the electorate.  That group is obviously big enough to influence the outcome of an election.

For example, in the high turnout 2012 San Diego mayoral general election between Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio, coin flippers made up about 14 percent of the electorate.  In other words, one out of every seven ballot casters did not have an opinion of either DeMaio or Filner.

OK, but if these folks are essentially flipping a coin to make their decision, how do they make a difference?  After all, a coin should land heads half the time and tails the other half if it’s fair.  Ah, but here is the unfairness of it all.  Coin-flippers can toss a weighted coin.  Despite not having an opinion of the two candidates, they voted three to one for Bob Filner in the Mayoral election. Why? They chose the “US Congressman and educator” (Filner) over the “City Councilman and businessman” (DeMaio).

Imagine you returned to Earth after being held captive by aliens after a couple decades (could happen).  You don’t know anything about the candidates but look down at the ballot to find that one is a Congressman and educator and the other is a Councilman and businessman. This is basically all coin flippers know and this is the way they make a decision. It becomes harder when the coin has more than two sides in a multicandidate race, but the coin flippers still make their call in the same way. The employment designations on the ballot prove to be a significant guide for them.

Candidates and campaign managers may feel exasperated by coin flippers, especially after the amount of time, effort and money they put in during a campaign to inform voters. But they are a reality of campaigning that campaign strategy should take into account. Coin flippers are going to vote, so it isn’t a matter of GOTV. Strategists need to figure out how to weight the coin sitting in the voters’ hands favorably toward their candidate using the candidate’s employment designation.

To deal with the phenomenon of coin flippers in California, the first step is awareness; do not ignore the issue.  Then a consultant and candidate need to examine their particular situation and devise strategies that can influence a coin-flipping voter in a positive direction.

Coin flippers are busy, generally less politically sophisticated and less tied to their communities.  Although they tend to be younger, this is not always the case.  Envision a harried single mom or dad who doesn’t have time to pay close attention to who is running for your down-ballot race.  Develop a ballot label that speaks to them.  It may be your only way of communicating who you are and what you stand for to a voter.

Better still would be figuring out tactics that can successfully turn coin flippers into more informed voters.  I’ll leave that for a future post.

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