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Democrats Are Gifting the Median Voter to Republicans

The party in control of the presidency typically loses seats in the House and Senate in midterm elections. Since Jimmy Carter, the presidential party has on average lost just over 20 seats in the House and just under four seats in the Senate. An average election (which they never are) would see the Republicans hold onto the House by a narrow margin, and would see the Democrats take control of the Senate. But with 23 Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018, plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and only eight Republicans, it looks to be a tough slog for Democrats to replicate historical averages, and pick up the Senate.

More than the math and the state-level politics, which heavily influence congressional races, however, Democrats seem intent on handing the GOP a good shot at surviving the midterm elections, and making it a tougher road to the White House for any Democrat in 2020.

First, the leftward lurch of the Democrats may play to an excited, motivated party base. And that’s not unimportant. But it’s lousy electoral politics.

One can concede that a broad swath of the Democratic base might be changing, becoming more liberal, even socialist. But movements in the tails of voter distributions, by themselves, don’t necessarily change election outcomes. Changes in the median voter—the voter who provides the one vote over 50 percent– and shifts in the relative position of candidates to that median voter is what changes election outcomes.

Here’s an exercise appropriate for a cocktail napkin: Draw a line and place nine points on it, all equally spaced. Call the line the left-right spectrum. The winner in a two-candidate election with these nine voters needs the critical middle, or median, voter to win the election.

Now, take four of the voters on one side of the median, and move them way out to the extreme. Even bunch them up on the extreme if you wish. The median doesn’t move. The winning candidate still needs to persuade that middle voter to win the election.

This doesn’t just apply to changes in voters on one side of the spectrum. Take the four voters on the other side of this electorate, and move them way out to the other extreme. You’ve just made your electorate more polarized. But, still, the candidates still make their pitch to the voter in the middle despite movement to the extremes amongst the other 89 percent of electorate. To be sure, in the real world candidates need also worry about turnout as well, but they worry about turnout because that affects who the median voter is, and so it affects the location of the median voter.

The question for the Democrats is whether the respective median voters in the different states (and congressional districts) are moving left as quickly as the Democrats are. If not, then despite the demand of a good part of the Democratic base for the party to move left, it’s a terrible move for the party electorally.

Indeed, the Democrats tried this strategy in the past, and it didn’t work. The party went for increased ideological purity with George McGovern, and the candidate got pasted. Michael Dukakis tried to run as non-partisan technocrat, but let Bush label him as a “card carrying liberal,” and got destroyed. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran as centrists, and got elected. Even though Barack Obama governed more on the left than Carter or Clinton, he nonetheless campaigned as a moderate.

While there is turmoil among voters in both parties, there is as yet little evidence that state-level and district-level medians are moving significantly, or, at least, that they’re moving to the left as quickly or as far as many in the Democratic base want the Democrats to move.

Secondly, there’s the deal Trump cut with Pelosi and Schumer on the debt ceiling, and some sort of a discussion about a compromise on DACA. Wow. I understand Republican lawmakers feel whip-sawed by the President. But another few congressional “wins” like that for the Democrats with Trump and they will completely demoralize the most energetic swath of their base, or push them into even more extreme opposition to Trump (if that’s at all possible).

Trump is poison for many in the Democratic base. Many have moved from the normal condescension with which Democrats treat Republicans, into pure hatred. They make GOP “Never Trumpers” look like subscribers to American Greatness.

Demoralizing the rabidly anti-Trump portion of the Democratic base means some won’t turn out to vote. In turn, decreased turnout among the Democratic base would mean that the location of the median voter moves to the right. On the other hand, if Democrats become even more extreme, then it moves the party even further away from the median voter, making it easier for GOP candidates to position themselves to win the critical pivotal voter. In either case, this is good news for the Republicans.

To be sure, a more-pure leftwing Democratic Party might articulate a cleaner, less muddled ideological message, and so persuade the respective medians to move left with them. Bernie Sanders, after all, polled well against Trump through election day. But those were hypothetical matchups. I am reluctant to believe that the moderately center-right median American voter, if faced with the serious prospect of following Bernie Sanders’ over the precipice into socialist paradise, would actually accept the invitation. Of course, it always depends on what the alternative is.

In any event, the Democrats may be doing what the Republicans seem unable to do: saving the Republicans from themselves.

Reader Discussion

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on September 21, 2017 at 10:12:34 am

What a curious essay.

1. Rogers begins by noting that elections involve the effort to appeal to the broadest range of voters. Yup, adopting extremist positions is a great way to lose elections. Which explains why the Republicans went with Jeb rather than Trump. Or, at least, explains why Trump lost. Oh, wait….

Trump won not by having the broadest appeal, but by energizing his base.

Indeed, Roger then acknowledges, in the context of the debt ceiling, etc., that there’s more to elections than having the broadest appeal: There’s also the matter of energizing the base. So when Rogers is talking about the benefits of the broader appeal, he should also acknowledge the downside of that strategy: the challenges that appeal poses for energizing the base. Likewise, when he’s talking about the advantages of energizing the base, he should also acknowledge the downsides of that strategy: repelling the swing voter. There are no one-sided coins in this game.

So, the issue for the parties is this: Which strategy is more powerful?

In a world with ever fewer swing/undecided voters, the idea that a party should sacrifice its messaging in order to appeal to this almost mythical constituency become ever less tenable. Energizing the base, in contrast, becomes an ever more viable strategy—especially for Democrats.

Polling suggests that the average Republican voter, living on a diet of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, has less accurate factual information than the average Democratic voter. But knowledgeable or not, they are a more stable voting bloc. In contrast, a sizable number of Democratic voters are fickle—not about which party to support, but about whether to vote at all. If Democrats could get the kind of turn-out they got for Obama’s first election, they’d win the Presidency, House, and Senate every time. But they don’t.

This seems to be the lesson of the change from the Obama election to the Trump election: Sure, some Obama voters switched to Trump. But the bigger change was that huge numbers of Democrats--especially black Democrats--simply stayed home. (Ok, maybe that’s unfair; there has been a big surge in voter suppression efforts, too.)

In sum: Roger’s nine-point analysis is flawed, because it fails to acknowledge that the middle three points won’t bother to vote for either party unless they’re energized. Merely refraining from offending them isn’t enough. But the party that tailors its message to those middle three voters will only win one, and will lose two on its far flank.

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nobody.really
on September 21, 2017 at 10:13:29 am

1. Then there’s this:

Secondly, there’s the deal Trump cut with Pelosi and Schumer on the debt ceiling, and some sort of a discussion about a compromise on DACA. Wow. I understand Republican lawmakers feel whip-sawed by the President. But another few congressional “wins” like that for the Democrats with Trump and they will completely demoralize the most energetic swath of their base, or push them into even more extreme opposition to Trump (if that’s at all possible).

Huh?
A. What did Rogers think the Democrats should have done on the debt ceiling—dig in their heels and drive the country into insolvency? Or, at least, drive Trump into the arms of Republican hard-liners (who currently are suffering for lack of anything to show their constituents)? How exactly would that help Democrats?

B. Likewise, DACA polls very well, even with Republicans. What harm does Rogers think will come from being associated with supporting DACA?

C. Here Rogers acknowledges for the first time that energizing the base is an important electoral strategy, but apparently only for Democrats. I guess he thinks that any show of cooperation with Trump will demoralize the Democratic base. Yet to my NPR-laden ears, the deal sounded like a pretty solid gain for Democrats with no special upside for Republicans. The debt ceiling was extended a minimal amount, so that it will return in time to force another controversial vote for the putatively debt-conscious Republicans and Trump next December. So I’m not seeing how this deflates the Democratic base.

D. To the contrary, the base I think that gets deflated by this is the Republican one. They are exposed to the image of Trump doing deals with the detested Democrats, and even playing nice on issues of immigration. Trump’s base was burning their MAGA hats on YouTube.

In short, I've been a big Rogers fan, but I can’t make any sense of this essay.

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nobody.really
on September 21, 2017 at 10:28:43 am

The debt ceiling deal has the potential to benefit Republicans IF they can pull off some legislative accomplishments in the meantime. That's a big if, of course, but the ball is now back in their court. By not having this time consumed with debt crisis talks, Congress has a chance to pass some of the GOP's agenda items. We'll see if they seize the opportunity.

With DACA, the Republicans have a chance to put the immigration issue to bed for a while by agreeing to an issue that is popular with the public without having to do comprehensive reform. Again, they may not take the opportunity, but Trump has effectively closed in on a much narrower segment of the immigration issue than the Democrats would like (see Nancy Pelosi getting hammered the other day over this very thing). If DACA ends up being exchanged for meaningful enforcement, again, a big if, then the Republicans will have a win here.

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XianLSE
on September 21, 2017 at 13:31:49 pm

Polls CAN *suggest* anything they set out to suggest!

One can find other polls that *prove* that GOP voters are, in fact, the better informed sector of the electorate.

I do, however, agree with you that the median voter is somewhat more mythical than "polls" would "suggest."

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gabe
on September 21, 2017 at 13:37:34 pm

"Yet to my NPR-laden ears" - Ahhh! So NPR listeners must perforce be the "better-informed" ones, if FOX and The Fat Guy are the spewers of false information.

Never confuse a mellifluous tone / cadence with intelligent argumentation.

Hey where does that put me?
I have not watched or listened to the news for over a quarter century - but I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express during my last golf outing.

Nobody - don't be so condescending to righties by accepting the false narrative that they are uneducated and / or *mal*-informed because they prefer to hear something other than the typical NPR pseudo-intellectual grist.

And anyway, NPR does NOT do football - so what are they worth?

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gabe
on September 21, 2017 at 18:13:41 pm

And anyway, NPR does NOT do football – so what are they worth?

http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510052/only-a-game

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nobody.really
on September 22, 2017 at 13:40:39 pm

When the progressives in the Democratic party increasingly follow a false and divisive ideology, what would you expect?
http://www.claremont.org/crb/article/the-old-new-left-and-the-new-new-left/

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gda
on September 22, 2017 at 19:26:00 pm

Holy criminy - Batgirl - now here is a case where MY ideological preferences have BLINDED me to the wonders of a radio station.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!!!!!

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gabe
on September 22, 2017 at 21:47:26 pm

Berkat Tuhan Yesus Kristus melimpah atas semua orang yg mempercayainya siang maupun malam selalu ada utk kita... Haleluya... Amen.

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Emanuel Sugiyanto
on September 27, 2017 at 17:43:17 pm

Rogers assures us of the importance of appealing to the median voter, and of the Democrat's peculiar tendency to favor extremists.

In other news, Republicans favor Ray Moore over Luther Strange for the Senate. "Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader, was blunt: 'Every Republican senator had better get prepared for a challenge from the far right.'"
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/politics/republican-senate-alabama-mcconnell.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

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nobody.really
on October 05, 2017 at 13:12:26 pm

I think you do Roger an injustice. I think President Trump is the middle. Whilst I support the President, I think it very clear that his is a conservative Democrat presidency of the old sort. The closest we get to this President in terms of policy outcomes is JFK before his father died. The Democrats hate the President because that is where they came from, before the Voting Rights Act and LBJ's re-alignment of the parties and the huge expansion of the electorate.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the President is racist or his support is racist. But his position on most items of the public policy agenda is very similar to where we would have been in a mostly white electorate on the "Left".

I fully understand, but do not support the disdain that the "Never Trumpers" have for the President. The reality is that he took "their" party from them.

But the Democrats exude the hate that only apostates engage. The President is not an apostate - people change their party identification all the time. But his policies are very like what we would have seen out of an early JFK Administration, as opposed to an LBJ one - although I grant that Harvard does not figure. The relative conservatism of JFK - remember Whizzer White - is not something to be underestimated.

LBJ had to be to the far left, because he was a Southerner, in essence, with no base in the East, let alone the North, other than defense contractors.

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Peta Johnson

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.