No one claims to be ideologically extreme or an unbending partisan. Yet here we are, in the midst of one of the most politically polarized times in memory. So if nobody likes it (or says they don’t), how did we get here? I attribute this development to the rise of binding primaries and caucuses.The voters who turn out in primaries and caucuses are typically strong partisans which means to win the nomination the candidates must court these voters. And the longer the nomination season wears on, the more extreme the candidates have to become to win these contests. As a result, Moderate Mitt is probably gone forever.
Primaries and caucuses have been around in the U.S. since the Progressive Era. But it was not until after the debacle that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that the system became what it is today, with the candidates being chosen through the primary process rather than at the convention.
This changed the way campaigns were run. Candidates had to appeal to party loyalists and not party bosses to win the nomination. This forced the candidate to run to the right or left of center so as to appeal to party loyalists. Once a candidate secured the nomination he would run back to the center to appeal to more moderate voters. It became common knowledge that winning the center was the best way to win the general election, but winning the party base was the only way to win the nomination.
Mitt Romney has painted himself into a corner during this lengthy nomination season by running to the right, as have all candidates on the Republican side. But, with the intense media coverage, which will get even more intense in future elections, everything he says is readily available, which means he cannot run back to the center in the general election without Republicans feeling deceived and allowing Democrats to accuse him of once again changing positions on important issues. So, if he wins the nomination, he has to stay on the right. And this is true of every candidate on the Republican side. It is also a pattern that will be replicated in future elections by both parties. Candidates who win the nomination by running to the right or the left will have to stay there in the general election. There is simply too much media coverage and information available about what they say and do for them to move back to the center without appearing dishonest.
To change the trend of nominating only the most extreme candidates voter behavior must change. This year the overall turnout rate for primaries and caucuses is around 11%, and the composition of that 11% is not an accurate sample of the overall population or even of the Republican Party. These voters are more partisan than the average voter. If more moderates showed up to vote in primaries and caucuses candidates couldn’t just court the base, they would have to appeal to moderate voters as well.
The objection to my claim that moderates should show up in greater numbers is that to vote in closed primaries people have to identify with the party holding the primary. Many moderates identify as Independents and are therefore excluded from the process. So even if they wanted to vote they couldn’t. But, the increase in people identifying themselves as Independents is an illusion, for Independents don’t vote for Independent or third party candidates, most of the time they vote either Democrat or Republican. Claiming to be Independent and then acting like a party loyalist in the general election is disingenuous. Independents could help produce moderate candidates—as most independents do hold more centrist views—if they registered with the party they most commonly voted with and turned out for the primaries. And in states with open primaries like Tennessee and Vermont, where independents can vote, they must to turn out at the same rate as party loyalists if they truly want a moderate candidate.
Or, Independents could actually vote in the manner in which they identify themselves to pollsters (gasp), that is, vote for someone not from one of the two major parties. Most people don’t vote for a third party candidate because they feel that if a candidate does not have a legitimate shot to win then their vote is meaningless. First, your vote is meaningless. The chance that a single vote, your vote, will be the deciding one in any election approximates zero. Second, if you don’t vote for the person who you think is best equipped to run the country–regardless of party–you are wasting your vote.
If people really are dissatisfied with the direction of American politics in general, and polarization in particular, there is one simple solution: Get involved in a sincere and meaningful way.