Centrists know less about public policy than partisans

Mainstream beltway pundits have a habit of extolling the virtues of the supposedly pragmatic centrists over those nasty partisans who insist that their side is usually or always in the right. This tendency goes hand-in-hand with good government advocates who try to disempower political parties in favor letting voters pick the “best” candidate regardless of political party–as if political parties were just teams with different colored jerseys, rather than reflective of deep and genuine ideological schisms within the American electorate.

Well, in May the always excellent Lynn Vavreck had some more bad news for the “can’t we all just get along” beltway crowd: it turns out that these supposedly judicious voters who pick candidates on their merits rather than merely voting party line don’t know much about public policy:

Consider an otherwise average voter who is a self-described moderate and independent. At low levels of knowledge, this voter splits his or her ticket a third of the time (34 percent). At an average level of knowledge, the rate decreases to 18 percent of the time, and at the highest levels, these voters rarely split their tickets (10 percent). That’s a 24-point difference, which is a shift of nearly the same size as the one observable in the different political environments of Wyoming and West Virginia.

Incumbent Democratic senators in states that went for Mr. Romney in 2012, like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, need some of Mr. Romney’s voters to cross over and vote for them in 2014 — their re-election most likely depends on it. It’s not exactly a split ticket since it’s happening across elections, but the characteristics of people who cross party lines in a single election are likely to be similar to the characteristics of people who cross party lines across elections. This means that control of the Senate may rest in the hands of voters who know the least about politics.

But just as importantly, there just aren’t that many of them:

In 2012, nationwide, only 7 percent of voters who cast ballots for both the presidency and the Senate split their votes across the two major parties, according to the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project run by YouGov.

I haven’t seen figures on these patterns for the 2014 general election, but they’re unlikely to be much different. The most knowledgeable voters are partisans; the people who split their votes aren’t wise but unaware and very few in number, though they can still decide close elections.

More than ever, elections are about turning out the base. Democrats can’t seem to figure out how to do this effectively in midterms, while Republicans don’t have a big enough base to win fairly in general elections. That’s not a phenomenon to decry. It’s perfectly acceptable for the people who know the most about public policy and know what they want to see done, to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

The corrupting influence on politics isn’t political parties or engaged partisans. It’s a distorted campaign and lobbying system that allows a very few rich donors to spread minsinformation designed to prevent voters from seeing candidates who espouse their preferred policies elected at the ballot box, and then works to disempower what few populist legislators of either side from achieving the goals they got elected to enact.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.