Five-Part Series on Primaries
By Valerie Emmert
Part II: Why the Parties Seem to Be Getting More Extreme
We have all noticed that over the past couple of decades especially, it seems that more extreme candidates being elected in both parties, more so to the House than to the Senate. People blame deteriorating civility, gerrymandering. or even the primary system itself, even though primaries predate this phenomenon by over a century. Actually, I propose that, like everything in politics, it comes down to money.
Computerized data-crunching has become the norm in determining the most efficient allocation of resources, increasingly, winning elections, especially on the state and federal level, has become a turnout competition.
For example. data will show if a person voted in a primary and if so, for which party, but not for which candidate. In the past, parties, through their central committee representatives in each precinct, would use a primary contest to encourage unaffiliated voters to affiliate with the party that best matches their values, thereby growing their bases before a general election and infusing the party with more moderate voters. In the digital age, unaffiliated voters are generally ignored. In this case, each party has determined that it’s less expensive to distribute literature to only those voters who are affiliated with that party.
In a general election, data will show if a person voted or not, but not for which candidate, because we all get the same ballot. In this case, both parties have concluded that it’s a waste of resources to engage voters that have not participated every November. Furthermore, the parties don’t fund candidates in areas where the data reflects an advantage for the opposing party. Of course, because neither party has enough money to compete in every race, it makes sense to invest in candidates in only the most competitive districts. Additionally, parties don’t spend resources in neighborhoods where their candidate is “safe” according to the data—meaning that the opposing candidate is at a turnout disadvantage.
Two decades of this selective engagement have resulted in the growing extremism of elected officials, because without engagement with unaffiliated voters during primaries, only the most partisan voters participate, and, without party engagement of all voters in the general election, only the most self-motivated citizens participate. Another sad side effect of this data-driven model is that there are entire communities that see no voter engagement by either party because the party with the advantage sees no reason to allocate resources there, and the party with the disadvantage sees voter engagement in that community as a lost cause.
Data is but one tool in a massive toolbox available to candidates for winning elections. Too much reliance on data, and too little engagement with unaffiliated voters, have resulted in a smaller and more extreme pool of voters in each party and a growing pool of unaffiliated voters who have become disengaged from political discourse through neglect. Our election system was designed to foster competition between opposing visions of government from which the voters could choose. As parties shrink and the unaffiliated voter pool grows, the short-term problem is the extremism we’re seeing; but in the long-term we risk a future where there are no parties to sell opposing visions of our future to the electorate, but rather where candidates instead win on wealth and celebrity.