2020 Primary Politics: 02. Moderates’ Theory of Victory




Photo-illustration from screenshot of hyped up Trump fans at a rally

  • 01. Introduction (& how NPPs can vote in primaries)
  • 02. Theories of Victory — the Moderates
  • Theories of Victory — the Democratic Left
  • The Democratic Rift
  • Accepting Complexity
  • Politics Isn’t Local, It’s Personal
  • Guide to the Nomination Process
  • How Will Trump Fight?
  • What Can Be Achieved?
  • Who’s Telling It Straight?
  • Harris
  • Castro
  • Booker
  • Patrick
  • Gabbard
  • Klobuchar
  • Buttigieg
  • Yang
  • Biden
  • Bloomberg
  • Steyer
  • Warren
  • Sanders
  • Black Voters — It’s the Timing More Than the Base
  • Black Voters — Age, Religiosity, or Practicality?
  • Black Voters — Church-Centered
  • Black Voters — Secular
  • Latino Voters
  • Asian Voters
  • Women Voters
  • LGBTQ+ Voters
  • Labor Voters
  • Military Voters

Many of us Democrats may have believed in 2016 that Donald Trump would not have been much worse of a President than Hillary Clinton.  Most of us — with the exception of some of what one writer recently described “the anti-anti-Trump left” (largely supporters of Tulsi Gabbard who focus on keeping the U.S. out of war with foreign states), a minority of Bernie supporters, and some right-wingers like Sen. Joe Manchin — have gotten over that by now.

Yes, Hillary may have been another enthusiasm-numbing moderate, but at least we’d likely have gotten a Democratic appointee to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court (wheeeeee!), and Justice Kennedy probably would not have yet retired.  We might have been more likely to have invaded Venezuela — and Iran, and god knows where else — but we probably wouldn’t have so long as Bernie was still around to challenge her for reelection if need be.  On the other hand, we would likely not have won back the House, and we’d still be stuck in the Senate, and we’d have lost ground in statehouses and such.  Despite all that, Democrats want him out, and are split by sincere differences in how that could happen.

Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities for beating Trump: “capturing the middle” and “activating the base.”  There are respectively the theories of the moderate and leftist Democrats in this election (and at all other moments too.)  To keep these posts short, this one will deal just with the moderate theory of victory.

(1) Capture the median (non-Californian) voter

In a single-vote election for a single candidate that requires a simple majority (rather than a plurality or a supermajority) to win, median voter theory that whichever party can capture the median voter — the one on the 50th percentile on the dimension at issue — will win.

It is hard to describe how central and celebrated this belief is (or at least was when I was teaching it 30 years ago) in Political Science.  It didn’t take long before I became a strong critic of it, largely because there is no pervasive left-commonly understood left-to-right dimension onto which all candidates might be sorted.

This is not because, as libertarians argue, there has to be a second libertarian-to-statist dimension in addition — although that concession right there is enough to destroy the median voter model — but because people don’t sort politicians linearly on policy dimensions at all.  A person may array candidates in a gross sense that may or may not have much of scholarly views on left vs. right.  (“Strong vs. weak” may have some power in sorting them — and good luck convincing voters that Trump is not strong, with his dual sense of entitlement allowing him to break any rule and his squeals and bellows if anyone calls him on it.)  But more likely, the array is from “I like this one” to “I don’t like this one” — and that has much less to do with policy and much more to do with personality and identity and symbolism, all of which effect liking.

There are dozens, or hundreds or more, of dimensions on which a person may arrange candidates on policy issues — and like space itself most of the coordinates within it are empty, and people are placed arbitrarily on the rest, not obeying the dictates of where political scientists think they ought to go at all.  Sometimes dimensions on various policies braid together to for something more rope-like than string-like — but even then it might be idiopathic and ephemeral.  This is just not how people think.

This insight (which finally seems to have pervaded political thought way too late to have done my academic career any good) doesn’t mean that the median voter theory — the effect of which, if they followed it, pushes the both parts right to the middle of the Grand Policy Dimension where they become indistinguishable — is complete rubbish: some voters, who really care about politics and really make a study of politicians, may function this way — but it’s as rare as, well, a Ph.D.  But what it really means is that we have to rely on some overall sense of liking or disliking for a politician, which includes some sense of their competence and some sense of their symbolic and socio-psychological importance.  In other words, Hillary being a feminist female, or Trump helping white men (and their admirers) “pwn” the “politically correct snowflakes” — are as or more likely to inform this likability/suitability dimension than their qualifications or what they stand for.

So when moderates say that they’re for safe and sane policies, what they’re really for is someone who won’t scare the median voter.  Someone who won’t boost taxes appreciably on those with money and power — because they’ll have so much money to put into non-stop attack ads on Sanders that Bernie’s hauls will seem like chump change in comparison — and someone who challenge the median voter’s presumed prejudices against blacks, browns, and Muslims of all stripes.  That could be Biden, it could be Buttigieg, it could be Bloomberg or Klobuchar, all of whom we’ll address later this month.  If any of them scored well in likability — especially among NPP voters — this might be a valid argument.

The problem is this: if you’re trying to avoid eliciting hatred from the other side — which, obviously, is coming anyway, and which Biden and Bloomberg in particular seems ill-equipped to handle — you also avoid stirring emotions like excitement on your side.  And the fewer of your own base votes, the more the median voter among those who do vote, shifts away from your side and towards the other.

You just can’t expect energetic young people with time on their hands to work 90 hours a week for a candidate who doesn’t promise anything more than rear-guard actions to retrench the status quo reforms rather than embracing — in the words that Candidate Obama espoused and President Obama ignored — “the fierce urgency of now.”  In the pure economic logic of the median voter theorem, they should do so because Biden is closer to what they want than Trump.

But they won’t, just like I doubt that Mike Bloomberg would stump for Sanders.  In part because a Biden victory — even if cleanly obtained — will validate the idea that moderates win and leftists can’t, and it part because a slightly slower slide into climate-change chaos and a solicitous stance towards outlaw police and ravenous big bankers (and so much else) simply won’t seem worth fighting for.  (And that’s before we even get to the Creepy Uncle Joe video, which — as I said from the moment I watched it — I knew would kill him.)

Democrats haven’t nominated anyone but a moderate in almost 50 years, with the possible and partial exception of Walter Mondale, who — like John Kerry — was a complete Party Guy and the Establishment candidate.  We’ve won with two candidates — Bill Clinton and Obama — who benefited from recessions shortly before their elections.  Only Obama had anything resembling a true youth movement — one that went beyond ambitious Buttigieg types who wanted to rise in the party hierarchy — and he strangled it in its crib almost as soon as he got elected.  (He blamed the start of the Great Recession, with good reason, but he also didn’t engage in the sort of assertive use of Presidential Power, including executive orders, out of a reported fear of being impeached.)

The Democratic strategy in 2016 — which was that it was OK to nominate the second-least liked major candidate since World War II so long as they were running against the first-least liked — may have been pathetic but it not entirely crazy: it almost worked.  (And, as Hillary’s apologists will note, it did work in the popular vote, which Democrats apparently need to be reminded is not how we elect a President.)

But Hillary was not a candidate who could mobilize and energize voters — and that failure in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is what ultimately killed her chances.  That shouldn’t have mattered if voters decide not only their votes, but how much money and effort and time they will put in to electing their candidate is as great if the difference between them is an inch as it is if it is a mile — but that’s not how people who are largely uninterested in politics work.  You have to excite them.  Moderates think that moderateness is exciting; few agree.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-disabled and semi-retired, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally ran for office against jerks who otherwise would have gonr unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.) His daughter is a professional campaign treasurer. He doesn't usually know whom she and her firm represent. Whether they do so never influences his endorsements or coverage. (He does have his own strong opinions.) But when he does check campaign finance forms, he is often happily surprised to learn that good candidates he respects often DO hire her firm. (Maybe bad ones are scared off by his relationship with her, but they needn't be.)