Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Were Yesterday’s Voters Anti-Incumbents or Anti-Centrists?

Summary: Why all the “anti-establishment” rhetoric is only half of the story.

Last night, the May 18th Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas were characterized as anti-incumbency elections while the GOP primary in Kentucky was noted - at the very least - for being an anti-establishment contest.

In Pennsylvania, five-term Senator Arlen Specter was defeated in a Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA). In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln was forced into a run-off against Lt. Governor Bill Halter in their Democratic primary. Meanwhile in Kentucky, the Tea Party candidate Rand Paul crushed Washington-backed candidate Trey Grayson in a Republican primary.

Politico had this to say:

The anti-establishment, anti-incumbent fevers on display Tuesday are not new…[but] what’s now clear, in a way that wasn’t before, is that these results reflect a genuine national phenomenon, not simply isolated spasms in response to single issues or local circumstances.

This is a stark and potentially durable change in politics. The old structures that protected incumbent power are weakening. New structures, from partisan news outlets to online social networks, are giving anti-establishment politicians access to two essential elements of effective campaigns: publicity and financial support.

In effect, the anti-institutional forces that coalesced in recent years now look like an institutional force of their own.

There certainly was an anti-incumbency and anti-establishment mood among voters yesterday - there’s no denying that.

Last month we pointed to a Gallup poll that found voters more upset with incumbents than ever. For the first time in 20 years, less than a majority of Americans (49%) said that their member of Congress deserved re-election while an incredible 40% said they did not.

But this is only half of the story.

If you look at all the incumbents who lost in primaries in recent elections, there is one thing that makes them all similar - they were centrists.

In 2006, Senator Joe Lieberman was upset by the viscerally liberal Ned Lamont in a Democratic primary because of the incumbent’s support for the Iraq War. Lieberman was forced to become an independent in order to keep his Senate seat.

Similarly, Governor Charlie Crist (R-FL) has been forced out of the GOP in the Florida Senate race. Although he had not yet faced the more conservative Marco Rubio in a primary, Crist dropped out from his party and is now running as an independent.

Specter made a similar move last year to avoid a risky Republican primary with the more conservative Pat Toomey. He hoped that by becoming a Democrat he could hang on to his seat. In the end he was forced out of office in a Democratic primary by a more liberal opponent.

Even in Arkansas - a state that is by no means liberal - Blanche Lincoln is still fighting off a challenge from a more liberal primary contender. The Paul-Grayson matchup in Kentucky also characterizes a loss for the middle-of-the-road.

So why is this the trend?

An important rule for political success is “keep your base happy” - once they’re less than thrilled with your performance they’ll either stay home in a general election or vote you out in a primary. The base is the source of support that is constantly motivated politically.

Moderate voters don’t pay all that much attention to politics and they don’t vote as regularly - and they certainly don’t vote as often in primaries. They don’t tend to knock on doors or make phone calls. They’re not dependable for political success.

In recent years these facts have become all the more important - when raising small amounts of money online from your base is easier than getting a few large contributions from richer non-political donors, appealing more to the base is critical.

Ultimately this is very characteristic of why the American political landscape is as polarized as it is at the moment.

So as much as it’s true that Washington is unpopular and the incumbency effect seems like a less positive trait than usual, keep this in mind: incumbents and establishment candidates will do fine this year.

So long as they steer clear of the middle.

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