Yet, an ethnic group they often overlook -- the Scots-Irish -- are the voters the Republican Party convinced in 2010 to swing back to GOP candidates, after they swung toward the Democratic Party in 2006, experts say.
As the 2012 election approaches and both parties eye the White House and U.S. House and Senate seats, strategists from both parties say the Scots-Irish again could be critical to winning.
"They could be the margins in a tight race," said Tom McMahon, a Washington strategist who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 through 2009. The DNC, he said, wanted to ensure these voters "would be open-minded to voting for a Democrat,” because many are respected in their communities and could influence others."We found that when we talked about our core values as a party -- equality, fairness, social justice -- and how that applied to issues, we immediately made a connection to these voters,” he said. Democrats have not been effective with the Scots-Irish voting bloc during the past two years and might need to employ that approach again, McMahon believes.
The Scots-Irish apparently became voters to watch and court without knowing it.
“If they did know they were being focused on as part of a swing vote, they would probably vote in the exact opposite direction,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Several hundred thousand Scots-Irish, primarily Presbyterians and other Protestants from the Irish province of Ulster, came to North America during the colonial era. Fiercely independent, clannish and skeptical of government, many settled in Pennsylvania and helped shape its industrial growth. They understood hardship and hard work.
"By the end of the 17th century, this became the largest migration from Europe to America,” said F. Thornton Miller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Missouri.
These settlers preferred the hill country to coastal areas, building frontier communities across the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, moving from Pennsylvania into Ohio, and then south into West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. Often they became squatters, said Miller.
"They were known for fighting Indians, distilling and drinking whiskey. ... They became known as hillbillies," who didn't want to pay for land or to pay taxes, he said.