PP-2014-06-12-polarization-1-01It should come as little surprise to the casual observer of American politics that things have changed.  Fewer incumbents and candidates are willing to break party ranks, moderates are an endangered species within congressional ranks and if one digs deep enough in polls they find a public that has deeply divergent views on government, social issues and so on.  Much has been discussed about how and why this has happened. The advent of the Tea Party after Bush pushed the GOP to the right.  Obama’s victory over Clinton pushed Democrats to the left.  Demographics have turned the Democratic Party into the party of minorities and women.  In fact, white male turnout in Democratic primaries is below what it was at this stage in 2010.  Gerrymandering has allowed incumbents to pick their voters and not the other way around. What gets less mention is what this means for electoral politics and policy.  After-all, increasing ideology among voters and on both sides of the aisle is sure to be seen in legislation.  Electorally, the rise of ideology has made candidates on both the left and right turn increasingly conservative and liberal.  The media might not report on it but the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly liberal.  Consider that Bonnie Watson Coleman sounded a liberal theme in her New Jersey race to replace the retiring incumbent Rush Holt; former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy ran his campaign for the 1st District seat as a “bold progressive” arguing for an increase in the minimum wage; and California incumbent Mike Honda overcame a cash disadvantage to beat businessman and former Obama administration official Ro Khanna in the 17th District.  On the Republican side, moderates like Leonard Lance (NJ) and Richard Hanna (NY) are winning their primaries with fewer votes every cycle.  Both parties have also invested heavily in targeting retiring moderates seats and incumbents sitting in districts their party’s Presidential nominee won.  In the GOP case this would include targeting Collin Peterson in Minnesota, John Barrow of Georgia, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.  Democrats are targeting a handful of seats in the Northeast and Midwest. As this continues it will be harder and harder for candidates in the House and Senate to flip seats from one party to the other.  Gerrymandering combined with partisan self sorting makes it a herculean task thus the main battles take place in the primaries.  This is where party nominees are selected that are farther apart than nominees past.  Consider Maine’s 2nd CD race.  A moderate “Blue Dog” has represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District (one of the largest and most rural in the country) for the past decade. Michael Michaud, a pro-life Democrat who won his seat in 2002 against a pro-choice Republican, is leaving Congress to run for governor. His impending departure from the House fueled two competitive primaries. On the Democratic side, voters chose the more liberal candidate, Emily Cain, and on the Republican side, voters chose the more conservative one, Bruce Poliquin. Politico recently ran with an article titled “Do Democrats Need a Bubba Strategy?”  The upshot of the article is that Democrats should not give up on white, working class men and women, particularly white males.  But whites males are least likely to support a progressive agenda centered around women’s needs and minority concerns.  The increased polarization of American politics makes it that much harder for Democratic candidates to compete for rural votes and this assumes the Democratic candidate is even centrist and cares about their votes.  In 2001, Mark Warner won the Virginia Governor’s race by appealing to rural voters culturally.  But in 2012, former Governor Tim Kaine, who was elected Governor by also appealing to these same voters, ignored them and focused solely on the heavily Democratic and ideologically liberal Northern Virginia suburbs (max turnout). Policy-wise this phenomena has several impacts.  First, interest groups believe their agenda can best be served by supporting a candidate in a primary and not the general election.  In many states and districts that are safe the question is not whether an R or D is elected but what kind of R and D is elected.  Second, legislation that passes is likely to be heavily partisan and not encompass the views of the minority party.  Democrats gave Republicans a taste of this with passage of Financial Reform and Obamacare in the 2009 and 2010 Congressional sessions.  Third, fewer individuals are likely to support centrist policies.  Instead, fights over contraception, minimum wage will be argued against religious liberty and tax cuts.  The room for a middle ground is all but nil. Some hope that this will lead to Americans supporting a third-party or centrist, middle of the road Presidential candidate.  But the reality is this is not likely to happen short of somebody amassing enough wealth to bankroll their campaign.  The lack of party infrastructure and the fact few centrist partisans would likely support a third party candidate further exacerbate the problems plaguing a Independent candidate for President.  In much the same way hopes for a third-party in America face the same problem.  The Tea Party was the closest thing America has had to a third-party since the Civil Rights Era and the groups and voters that compose the Tea Party have decided to change the GOP from within.  In other words, the Tea Party wants to change the GOP and support the traditional, two-party system. Some are not nearly as pessimistic as this article’s author.  Some believe that there is a massive bloc of centrist voters that do not participate in politics because they are disgusted and disenfranchised from the process, “The real question is which party is going to re-calibrate, to tap into this huge reservoir of votes and bring the middle back in,” said Michelle Diggles of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. Neither party seems to buy this argument however.  Rather, a recent Pew survey combined with older surveys suggest that partisan voters are the most active and engaged.  It is thus much easier for either party to invest in this group of voters for support and money.  Only after base turnout is assured will candidates and the parties stretch their resources to reach casual or low information voters who may or may not turnout if contacted. In such a divided America with few persuadable voters, turnout is the name of the game.  As Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee puts it, ““On almost every economic issue of the day, the majority of general election voters are on the sides of progressive positions. “Our message to the Democratic Party this cycle is: Issues that resonate with the base in primaries are the same issues that will drive voters to the polls in November, if the party nominates truly populist candidates. People talking about eliminating student debt, jailing Wall Street bankers and changing campaign finance rules … helps get people off the couch.”

In other words, partisans swing elections and and you better listen to us. It is a message both parties are heeding more.


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