Voter fluidity and my outreach to new Democratic voters

Scott Thompson is a labor market economist and rural sociologist in Des Moines. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Voter fluidity

The large jump in registered Iowa Democrats this summer bears out anecdotal accounts from candidates and poll watchers about Republicans changing their party affiliation to vote in the Democratic primary. Statewide, Iowa had 594,199 active registered Democrats just before the June 5 primary, increasing to 618,388 by early July and holding at 618,472 in early August. In Polk County, where primary turnout was extremely high, the number of Democrats rose from 108,258 on June 1 to 114,629 in early July and ticked up to 114,812 as of August 1.

For the purposes of my work, I call this phenomenon voter fluidity. It happens when eligible voters who are already registered, with or without party affiliation, change their party status during an election cycle. Most often, a competitive caucus or primary drives that decision.


In Polk County Supervisor District 5, where State Senator Matt McCoy challenged longtime incumbent John Mauro in the Democratic primary, 594 Republicans made the switch to the Democratic Party. Additionally, 1,646 no-party voters, 33 Libertarians, and 24 other voters in the district changed their registration to Democratic. If this pattern of voter fluidity were a statewide phenomenon, the impact to the 2018 general election could be significant.
2018 Primary Voter Fluidity in 11 Polk County Precincts

Why voters change party affiliation

We might attribute this fluidity among Republican voters to several factors:

• Personal relationship

Some voters change political parties to vote for a friend, neighbor, or family member in primary election.

• Altruism

Other voters may change party affiliation as an altruistic act. A candidate(s) may have captured the voter’s attention, earning their respect and ultimately their vote.

• Cynicism

We can imagine some voters (hopefully few) change party affiliation as an act of political protest. They may not vote for a viable candidate, instead returning an incomplete ballot or writing in someone like Pat Paulsen, Willie Nelson, or Mickey Mouse. Or, they may vote for a candidate they presume to be a weaker potential nominee against their preferred party.

• Ideology

Other voters switch parties due to a shift in the ideology of either the party or the voter. Having changed my own party affiliation because of such changes in both the GOP and myself, I have a strong interest in this topic.

Experience as a fluid voter

What contributes to the decision-making process leading someone to change their political affiliation? For me, it was the growing bigotry, the indifference to social and economic issues, and the ugliness of Republicans both nationally and in my hometown which prompted me to affiliate with Democrats.

Increased political participation

After changing my party affiliation, I’ve become more active and engaged in party politics, but that might not be typical in cases of voter fluidity. What happens to Republicans and others who become Democrats for a time? We know from current evidence that personal contact with voters is the most effective method in securing their support. Why wouldn’t the same approach work to capture party fluid voters?

Appreciation and thanks

My curiosity about voter fluidity and personal experience has led me to go a step further in this process. Has anyone ever thought of making direct contact with these voters? Perhaps, but I’m going to commit to it. I’ve decided to write a personal letter, thanking by name every Republican voter who pulled a Democratic ballot in Matt McCoy’s primary contest.

I want those voters to know others have walked in their shoes, and their vote is appreciated. Imagine walking away from a familiar institution and breaking long-term relationships with people you supported and others with whom you volunteered. In my experience, a few old friends became former friends. Longtime Democrats who knew me weren’t sure what to think. Many were skeptical at first; after a few conversations, they warmed up to the change.

But you used to be a Republican

People who knew my parents asked me: “What would your dad think of you changing parties?” My answer was simple: “I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks, including my dad. Besides, he’s been dead 35 years and I hardly think he’d notice.” I think that if he were alive, my dad would be as disgusted with the GOP as I am.

A couple of former friends were upset and appeared to be let down. “When we were in high school we started Young Republicans.” A case or two of political arrested development. Who knew?

This letter is a small gesture, but I’m hoping it makes an impression on those Republicans who, like me, felt as though their party left them. If we’re going to brag about bringing Republicans into the Democratic tent, maybe it’s time we greet them. At the very least, we can thank them for their effort.

My letter to Republicans in Polk County Supervisor District 5 who cast ballots in the Democratic primary:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012.

It was the day I changed my voter registration from Republican to Democrat. For me, the change in political party was permanent.

We all have our own reasons for changing parties. I was raised in the Republican party. Both of my parents served on our county’s Republican central committee. In 1972 I began volunteering with the GOP, I was 11 years-old.

The first Republican Presidential candidate I voted for was Ronald Reagan. I attended his 1981 inaugural. Unfortunately, by 2012, the party I once loved and respected was no longer familiar to me and it didn’t represent my values. I could no longer support the Republican party or its candidates.

Some folks change their political party to vote for a friend. Other folks become interested in a candidate who has earned their attention and vote. Then, there are those, like me, who feel as though it is time to move on to a new party.

Whatever your reason, I thank you for voting Democrat candidates in the 2018 Iowa Primary. If this is a permanent change, welcome to the Democratic party. Perhaps one day you might become a volunteer or become active in party advocacy.

If you’re undecided about staying with our party, that’s fine. I hope you take some time to learn more about our candidates and our party. Perhaps you might discover something about our party that keeps you with us. In any case, thank you for voting with our party this spring.

I hope our party, our candidates, and myself can earn your trust and keep you as a Democrat voter through November 2018 and beyond.

Thank you and best wishes,

Top image: Scott Thompson, with his wife Ruth Thompson.

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