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Tar Heel Pundits
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Monday, August 05, 2002

The Silent Majority - Moderate Voters and the Political Parties Who Ignore Them

Yesterday's Washington Post had an article titled GOP, Democrats Locked in Race Towards Decline. In it, David Von Drehle and Dan Balz take a quick look at the gubernatorial race in Minnesota, noting the recent success of independent candidates, and then widen the scope of their article to general state politics in Minnesota. They note that Minnesota has historically been a safe state for Democrats, producing Hubert Humphrey and a member of the Democratic presidential ticket in five of the six elections from 1964 to 1984. The state, however, has changed. Al Gore, in the 2000 election, carried Minnesota by a scant 60,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast. Gore's percentage of the overall electorate was actually smaller in Minnesota than it was nationwide. Former Reform Party member and current independent Jesse Ventura won the gubernatorial seat in 1998, the election after Republican Arne Carlson won without her party's endorsement. The thesis of the article seems to be that the people are changing, but the parties are not, and that is driving large numbers of moderate voters away from the traditional political parties, subsequently costing them the elusive majority.

I can agree with much of what the article says, but I think a closer look needs to be taken at exactly why the parties are losing their popularity with moderate voters from both parties, since this trend is not confined just to the Democrats or the Republicans. It seems that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming increasingly tied to their core group of voters. By their core group (I know there is a better term for this but I can't think of it right now) I mean the group of voters that give money to the party and vote in the primary. This core group tends to be more ideologically radical than other voters, but since they support their party in every election and give money and vote in the primaries, the party listens and often follows this group (i.e. party platforms). This includes, but is not limited to, fundamentalist Christians, big business, militant anti-abortion activists, and the NRA lobby (though the middle may have moved to support the NRA since Sept. 11th) for the Republicans, and the unions, Hollywood, militant pro-abortion activists, and minority voting blocks (i.e. Jesse Jackson) for the Democrats. What seems to happen is that the parties pander to these special interests until after the primaries. Then the candidates "dash to the middle" to try to get enough moderate votes to win the election. Former President Clinton perfected this tactic, and Al Gore's failure to stake out the middle ground helped cost him the 2000 election.

I think the voters who are ideologically located between the two political parties all over the country are growing weary of this act, and this article demonstrates that the people in Minnesota are sick and tired of it. The rise of Ross Perot is a testament to the disenchantment of the middle voters (I am not including Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader because they both are, as Stephen Green would put it, bar nuts). The middle voters often feel like we get screwed come election time, and for good reason - we do get screwed. The people we elect more often follow their core constituencies than they do the group of voters that put them in Washington (or Raleigh, Atlanta, Denver, etc. though I do think this pattern is much more prevalent nationally than locally). President Bush supports the steel tariffs. Democrats fight over extending welfare reform. Both bitch about the other's core constituencies. Democrats and Republicans have litmus tests on any number of issues, especially abortion, for judicial nominees.

The parties have become captive of the special interest groups. This is why the McCain-Feingold bill was so popular. It was never about money and politics in and of itself - it was about the power over the parties that the money granted at the expense of the regular voter. Campaign finance reform resonated with a large part of the American people because it was viewed as reform that might make the parties listen to their moderate voters instead of turning a deaf ear to them until their votes are needed. Unfortunately, I do not think campaign finance reform will be successful in this respect. I believe that eventually a presidential candidate will run as an independent and stake out the center for him or herself for the entire election cycle (McCain is already trying this) . Until this happens, the parties will keep trying to placate their core at the expense of the middle. Still, even if the independent candidate is successful, the parties may not change, as is happening in Minnesota. Party identification is down for a reason. The parties no longer represent the moderate American. Until they value the average American more than the special interest groups, people will continue to leave the political parties. More people will come to say, as my father does, "I vote the man, not the party."

P.S. - Yes, I know the title sounds like a bad Springer episode...The real question is which Springer character would the two political parties be?

posted by John Branch @ 2:51 PM

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