By Jeff Rutherford
In the U.K., national elections are held for seats in the upper house (House of Lords) and lower house (House of Commons) of Parliament. Candidates affiliated with any political party can run and win a seat if they get the most votes from their local constituency. Following British tradition (not a written constitution), after this public phase of elections is finished, only then does the political haggling to build a ruling coalition start. The public does not get to participate in this political deal-making process. Factions within the Parliament seat-holders ally and oppose and bargain and eventually coalesce enough seats into a ruling majority called a coalition. By custom, that ruling coalition then elects a leader to represent them, and the Queen appoints that leader to the position of Prime Minister – a traditional formality. Thus the U.K. citizens are not directly involved in determining who the ruling coalition or PM will be.
In the United States, the public is directly involved in electing both their legislators and their President. Registered members of the major parties have the opportunity to participate in the building of coalitions and selection of candidates BEFORE the general election, by voting in the primaries. This approach takes the selection of candidates out of the sole hands of party establishment leaders and deal-makers, and puts it in the hands of a (hopefully) informed public. That’s why the televised debates and opinion polling start so early before U.S. elections. If you’re actively involved in vetting the candidates for yourself to prepare for voting in your primaries, then you’re the audience I am addressing with this article.
Gauging Public Sentiment
Every 1-2 years since 1972, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago has asked several hundred questions to around 3000 American adults (fewer in the early years) selected at random. It is called the General Social Survey (GSS). One of the questions (added in 1974) asks the respondent to say where they’d place their political viewpoint on a 7-point scale from left to right:
- Extremely liberal
- Slightly liberal
- Moderate, middle of the road
- Slightly conservative
- Extremely conservative
(click to enlarge) (data source)
Although interesting, this is not a factual matter since the GSS survey asks for a self-perception that is certainly colored by each respondent’s idea about where the political middle of the road really is. Across these years, the news media has largely abandoned objective reporting in favor of today’s “advocacy journalism” where they implicitly decide what is best for you to think, without bothering to reveal what they HAVEN’T told you. (Just ask Dan Rather how that worked out for him.) Nevertheless, the results of this survey from 1974 to 2014 are shown above.
Another periodic survey by the Pew Research Center attempts to determine voters’ political views a bit more analytically, by gathering their preferences between 10 pairs of statements on a few selected issues in modern American society. This survey has been done every 5 years since 1994. For each pair, the respondent is asked “Which statement comes closer to your views, even if neither is exactly right?”
For each respondent, Pew computes an “ideological consistency” score by tallying a -1 for each liberal choice, +1 for each conservative choice, and 0 for each non-answer. Each respondent’s total can be from -10 to +10 (including 0), for 21 possible integer scores.
Since each answer is a forced choice, the wording of each pair is very influential on the respondents’ choices. I could make the case that these statements are ridiculously superficial because unintended consequences usually aren’t mentioned, and because the “best” choice is often a mix of both views. As a result, I believe the survey coaxes the answers towards liberalism by painting conservatism as a cruel heartless worldview. Take the 7th pair for example. The forced choice is peace through military strength vs. peace through good diplomacy. There is no allowance for the pragmatic view that a position of military strength is the best starting point for pursuing good diplomacy. The implication is that Conservatives only rattle sabers and are unwilling to engage in diplomacy. This implication is not true, and reveals the leftist bias of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Nevertheless, for argument’s sake the remainder of this article will take the Pew Research Center’s data at face value. The results of Pew’s 2014 poll of over 10,000 respondents are shown in this graph I created from their raw data:
The percentage of Pew’s 2014 respondents identifying as Democrat and Republican were about equal – 38% — and their views leaned predictably left and right as shown. Interestingly, the remaining 24% of respondents (the green line) had views that leaned almost as far left as the Democrat respondents. This graph includes all respondents, both politically active voters and not-so-active voters. Coming up, I will stack all three groups on top of each other and draw some conclusions about its implications for the general election.
Who Are America’s Coalition Builders?
Pew determined the degree of political engagement by asking each respondent if they have donated to candidates, if they have volunteered to help a candidate at the grassroots level, and if they typically vote in primaries. I created another graph from Pew’s raw data showing the ideological viewpoints of only the politically active voters:
Only Democrats and Republicans are shown since only they can vote in about 75% of the states’ primaries. You can see these blue and red haystacks are lower and skewed much farther apart than the general population graphs, because only about half of registered Democrats and Republicans vote in primaries, and because of the increasingly polarized viewpoints in American politics today. Pew illustrated this increasing voter polarization with side-by-side graphs from 1994, 2004, and 2014 – for both the politically active and not-so-active voters:
As you can see over time from 1994 to 2014, the increased polarization of American voters has been most pronounced among the active participants of the process. The more politically engaged voters are the main folks currently evaluating the many candidates, and arguing mightily about who should be their Party’s candidate in the general election. This can possibly set up an ironic Catch-22, if the politically engaged voters in the primaries select a candidate that will have difficulty appealing to at least 48% of the general population of voters. (I am bypassing the details of the Electoral College process for this article.)
To help illustrate this possible Catch-22, here’s the graph I created from the raw 2014 Pew data, piling all three voting groups – Democrats, Republicans, and Other — into one plain vanilla haystack (as in a general election) and then showing the percentage contained in each vertical “slice” across the horizontal scale of ideology:
The main thing to note about the above graph is that the peak (between the two stripes containing 7.4% each) is not centered. At least for Pew’s 2014 polling, the peak is skewed 2½ stripes to the left of center.
In a general election, a presidential or congressional candidate will need to persuade more than about 48% of the voters in order to win. Here’s a plot of how challenging that will be for five hypothetical candidates:
Does this mean that a centrist candidate is the best choice to help get America returned to a prosperous long-term path? Certainly not! It only means a centrist candidate would have the best chance of getting elected. I do not believe leftist or centrist policies are best for the long-term prosperity of America. The goal for Conservatives is obviously to select the most conservative candidate in the primaries that is electable by the general population. The further right a candidate’s position is on the spectrum, the more persuasive and articulate he/she must be to secure at least 48% of the popular vote. In the arrows on the above plot, I call this the “persuasion distance.”
Where do the Republican candidates stand?
Finally let’s take a moment to roughly gauge the ideological positions of the 2016 presidential candidates, derived from two different sources. First is a technique developed by political analyst Pablo Barberá to score the political ideology of each candidate’s Twitter network by analyzing the content of their Tweets. Here is an interesting June 16th graph applying this technique to the 2016 presidential candidates. I could not find a newer graph from Barberá, so keep in mind this precedes the Republican debates where their positions began to become more fully revealed:
The second source is the detailed political evaluation matrix from ConservativeReview.com, a rock-ribbed conservative site whose Editor-in-Chief is now Mark Levin. Here are their qualitative ratings of the Republican candidates as of October 9th:
I devised a scoring system for each candidate using all eleven policy categories. Each green dot = 2 points, each yellow dot = 1 point, each red dot = 0 points. Here are the notional results from my admittedly arbitrary method:
Because all 13 candidates claim to be Conservatives, I chose to show them all on the right side of the ideological scale, although Mark Levin would no doubt disagree about 2-4 of them being placed right of center. I don’t necessarily agree with the order shown, but that’s how my arbitrary scoring of ConservativeReview.com’s ratings came out.
I will not try to stretch this analysis too far by combining the scores from the Twitter and ConservativeReview sources. My purpose above was just to show that candidates are being judged by voters who need to discover where candidates stand on the political spectrum before accepting one with their vote. This is American coalition building in action.
Afterthought: My Personal Conclusion
For what it’s worth: The limb I have walked out onto via all this tortured speculation, along with my observation of the two televised debates, convinces me that Marco Rubio is the most conservative Republican candidate who is persuasive and articulate enough to appeal to a 48% span of the general voter population and win the 2016 Presidential election. You will draw your own conclusion. My goal was only to get you to think about the consequences of your primary voting strategy.