TV on the Radio: Republicans and Rules in American Politics –

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TV on the Radio: Republicans and Rules in American Politics –

Televised political debates are a funny thing. Still a novelty on this side of the pond – the first British leaders' debate on TV was held in the summer of 2010 – they characterise the gladiatorial nature of American politics. Stylised media coverage of the presidential debates as boxing matches saturates the political discourse. Office workers talk about the candidates' performances around the water cooler and students organise drinking games around the cues of 'jobs', 'unemployment' and 'fiscal cliff'. And yet seasoned politicos claim elections are about the fundamentals, are won on the ground. Mitt Romney's clear victory in the first debate in Denver did indeed reverse his campaign's seemingly inexorable decline and jolted the momentum of a previously one-horse race. But the most fascinating thing about that debate in particular, and the race itself as a whole, was Romney's startling shift to centre after 16 months of hard-right electioneering.1

What Romney's campaign team realised too late was that the Republicans have gradually ossified into a minority party: not a minority traditionally understood but one of wealthy WASPs. Before Romney's about-face at Denver, the GOP had refused to engage with a rapidly changing America, instead ignoring it and changing the rules to suit its interests accordingly. Those threatened or on the losing side often attempt to move the goalposts – both Democratic and Republican legislators alike have a lengthy history of gerrymandering.2 But the GOP has risen to new heights – or sunk to new lows – in an increasingly beleaguered effort to combat demographic trends. Republican politicians have enacted whole swathes of anti-undocumented immigrant pieces of legislation in Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia and Indiana over the past two years, whilst also vociferously opposing President Obama's much vaunted Dream Act in 2010. 2012 was trumpeted as a turnout election:3 Republican legislators worked furiously up to the wire to restrict people voting[4] and dampen turnout. Whilst a close popular vote may comfort some Republican strategists, it cannot hide the demographic writing on the wall. Whites accounted for 72% of the electorate in 2012, a segment Romney won, especially amongst white men and the elderly. But this was not enough to beat Obama's coalition of women, young people, blacks and Hispanics. Whilst the Hispanic vote is only crucial in a small number of states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, it represents the fast growing bloc in US politics. Although jobs and the economy rank as more important issues for Hispanics, immigration is massively salient: 60% polled[5] by Latino Decisions say they know an undocumented immigrant. Instead of attempting to win over the Latino community, the GOP has sought to exclude them from the political process.

The nature of the American primary system encourages overreach. Candidates are forced to the ideological fringes[6] in order to satisfy their base and win their party's nomination. Romney clearly felt that the Republican Party (and by extension, himself) had gone too far right to be tenable in a national election. Fearful of voters' growing alienation, Romney thus distanced himself from, or denied outright, the GOP's agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, social conservatism and budget austerity. His shift was interesting for two reasons. The first is simple: flashy TV debates can't mask the fundamentals – both Romney and the leader of the Lib Dems in Britain, Nick Clegg, will attest to this reality. The second is more nuanced. It points toward Anthony Downs' much maligned median voter theorem in political science. The logic of the model holds that in a two-party majoritarian system, both parties will converge on the preferences of the median voter – the decisive voter in the election.7 Much academic wringing of hands (and ink) has not definitively concluded whether or not its predictions are accurate. Someone in Romney's campaign team obviously realised the importance of Downs' work as a corrective to America's hyper-partisan primary system, however. Unfortunately, this abrupt turnabout came too late for the Romney campaign: exit polls suggest between 60-70% of voters had made up their minds in September;8 these voters preferred President Obama.

The deeper point here, without sounding too cushy about it, is that Obama and the Democrats have embraced change whilst the Republicans have rejected it. All aspiring American politicians are presented with the same set of rules guiding their path to office. How they respond to such rules provides an instructive insight into their own behaviour and their party's ideology. The primary system forced Romney far to the right on various issues such as immigration to placate his base but thus making him unpalatable to other voters. Honing back in toward the middle was Romney's attempt to put himself back in the race. The counterfactual is whether if by winning the Democratic nomination would Obama have veered too left to make him intolerable to an elderly white male or some other such 'safe' Republican constituency? Possibly, but one would think not – the Democrats do not have a splinter group as extremist as the Tea Party that forces candidates to such ideological extremes. Some commentators have suggested that Tea Party zealotry jeopardised up to four close Senate races[9] in the past two years. In a tightly contested Senate, such races have serious repercussions.

Comparing Democrat and Republican behaviour within the same constitutional system is interesting. US elections are shaped by district magnitude, the electoral formula and the ballot structure. When districts are small and mixed in the composition of voters, each party is typically a winner in some safe districts and electoral competition becomes concentrated in the remaining pivotal districts; both candidates thus have strong incentives to target their policies toward voters in these districts.10 This is upheld by data from recent US presidential elections, including the one just past, during which resources are disproportionately poured into swing states such as Ohio and Florida. Obama's response hasn't been immune either to such nefarious incentives of the rules of the game. The focus on mobilising the base[11] and persuading the undecideds in battleground states resulted in some pretty horrific attack advertising[12] from both sides. The US's electoral system forces candidates to the poles to gain their party nomination only to find themselves too ideological for the national electorate. But then the struggle for National College votes incentivises office-seekers to mobilise the base and lash out at the opponent in key districts. The outcome is a polarised political discourse, compounded by a bloodthirsty media biased toward covering close campaigns. That first strange TV debate, in which Obama appeared listless and Romney aggressive but almost totally devoid of substance, represents just the tip of a rapidly melting political iceberg; American politics is overheating.


  1. Tomasky, M., 'The Election – I' in The New York Review of Books, Vol. LIX, No. 17, November 8-21 (2012), p. 8.
  7. Downs, A., 'An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy' in Journal of Political Economy, vol. 65, no. 2 (1957), pp. 135-150.
  10. Persson, T., and Tabellini, G., The Economic Effects of Constitutions, MIT Press, Cambridge (2005), p. 17.