Polarization and Electability

One of the solid truisms of contemporary politics is that partisan and ideological polarization has significantly reduced the number of “swing voters” in most elections–especially presidential elections where major-party candidates are pretty well known by the time the campaign reaches its decisive phases. That also means there’s something of a “floor” beneath major-party candidates given the higher percentage of people who will eventually vote with their party (even if they prefer to call themselves “independent”) no matter what. So even if, say, Ted Cruz is Barry Goldwater reincarnated, he would, if nominated, do a lot better than Barry’s 38.5%.

But what if polarization (and for that matter such “fundamentals” as the economy) is even more powerful than we realize, and the exact identity of the candidates is pretty much irrelevant to the outcome? That could have a pretty profound impact on the nomination process, wouldn’t it, especially in a cycle like this one where partisans are understandably very anxious to win?

We’ll, it’s just one general election poll in one battleground state, and I’m pointing to it strictly as an example of something that might turn into a trend later on–but a new PPP survey of Iowa has this rather amazing range of general election trial heats:

PPP’s new Presidential poll in Iowa finds a tight race in the general
election for President in the state. Hillary Clinton leads 7 of her Republican opponents
while trailing 4 of them, but in none of the cases are the margins larger than 4 points.
The strongest Republican against Clinton in the state is Ben Carson, who leads her 44/40.
The other three GOP hopefuls ahead of Clinton all lead her by just a single point- Mike
Huckabee at 44/43, Scott Walker at 44/43, and Marco Rubio at 43/42.

The Republicans who fare the worst against Clinton are Jeb Bush who trails by 4 at 44/40, and Rand Paul and Donald Trump who each trail by 3 at 43/40. The rest of the
GOP hopefuls each trail Clinton by 2 points- Ted Cruz at 44/42, Carly Fiorina at 42/40,
and Chris Christie and John Kasich each at 41/39.

PPP doesn’t test Bernie Sanders against the entire GOP field, but the tests it does offer show very small differences between his performance and HRC’s (he leads Trump 44/40; HRC leads Trump 43/40;) he leads Jebbie 41/40; she leads Jebbie 44/40).

If this does turn out to be a trend, what do you suppose might be the psychological effect among party activists, donors and “base” voters? They’d worry a lot less about electability and a lot more about how much they agree with–or would benefit from–the ideologies and policies of the various candidates, wouldn’t they?

Now back in the day you might have responded to this sort of analysis by saying that “centrist” candidates have not only a superior appeal to “swing voters” but the additional benefit of being able to “get things done” via cooperation with the opposing party. For the time being, that’s pretty much a defunct idea, particularly for Democrats looking forward to their president dealing with a Republican House and/or Senate, though some journalists clearly cannot shake it. So we could see the more ideologically strident candidates getting a little hidden bonus.

And while my knee continues to jerk in a negative response to the proposition that ideological candidates are the only true or honorable candidates–sometimes “centrists” actually do believe in what they are proposing–it is entirely rational for ideologically motivated players in the presidential nominating process to prefer the maximum bang for their buck should their party win all other things being equal. My point here is that we may be approaching the day when all other things really are equal between “ideologues” and “centrists” in both parties when it comes to electability.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.