The Times, Are They A-Changin' For Political Parties?

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JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 12, 2010

The Times, Are They A-Changin' For Political Parties?

This is part three of a three-part series on the prospects for political reform in the coming year. Here are part one and part two.

Item: Lisa Murkowski lost her primary fair and square...and then decided to run as a write-in candidate, with quite a bit of support from one major faction of Alaska Republicans against the duly chosen nominee, and as of this writing appears to have won.

Item: Dan Maes won the Colorado GOP primary for governor fair and square, but looked like a lousy candidate...so the party leaders tried to get him to quit, and when that didn’t work, the party wound up rallying around Tom Tancredo, who had filed as a third-party candidate, effectively ditching the duly nominated candidate.

Item: In the special election last year for New York’s 23rd district, a party committee chose a nominee -- and then Republicans, mostly led by national Republicans outside the district, decided to support a candidate who filed as a third-party candidate, leading to the duly chosen nominee quitting the race and endorsing the Democrat.

OK, we have three sort of similar cases; does that make a trend?

I can’t really say it is; I don’t know. If it is, however, I can say what kind of a trend it is, and why it matters; as it stands, I can only say that it’s something worth watching. The issue is losing factions in party nomination fights refusing to accept the outcome -- and having a plausible means of fighting on. Traditionally, the only options available to losing candidates were exit (that is, just sitting out the election) or switching sides. The former was regularly practiced; the latter was an extreme measure, since there was no way of going back in most cases.

It may turn out that under current conditions, the “fight on” option is suddenly much more viable. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps money is easier to come by; perhaps it has to do with the growth of a true national party (remember, national political parties are a recent development in American politics); perhaps it has something to do with communications technology; perhaps it’s a consequence of norms that have broken down. Perhaps it has to do with changes in the structure of parties.

Or perhaps it’s a fluke, and we won’t see more of these.

It matters because...well, let me hand this over to David Karol, party (and party network) scholar. Here’s what he said after NY-23:

If factions in a party do not respect their own nomination process that is a big problem for it. Alan Ware has shown that part of the reason party leaders supported the creation of the Australian ballot and, some years later, the establishment of primaries was that they needed a nomination process that would appear legitimate to losers in order to minimize splits. Part of being a successful party is accepting that you fight your fight inside the organization and then respect its verdict.

Since we don’t know yet whether something systematic is happening or not, I’ll first of all call on party scholars to start thinking about this as a potentially serious issue. For everyone else...want to know about how people voted before government-supplied ballots, and before primary elections? The best thing you can do is to read book David mentioned above, the great Alan Ware’s The American Direct Primary.

The next-best (but much quicker) thing you can do is to read my quicky summary of some of the issues involved, also from after NY-23 last year. Want to know about “pasters”? “Knifing”? Click over!

I should note, however, that I ended that post by supposing that the lack of a primary election might be the problem in NY-23, and that “primary elections turn out to be really successful at convincing everyone to treat their winner as the legitimate choice of the party.” Oops! Tell that to Joe Miller!

So I’ll finish this one by speculating some more. One thing that made all three cases plausible were local circumstances that made it easier for splitters to fight on. In NY-23, the Conservative Party line helped. In Colorado, Tancredo’s candidacy gave Republicans a safe place to go when the duly nominated candidate appeared to have little hope of winning but plenty of promise for embarrassing the party. In Alaska, I suspect the tiny size of the electorate helped; it also couldn’t have hurt that a similar situation happened within the memory (perhaps) of longtime AK pols and observers (in 1968, on the Democratic side, a sitting Senator lost a primary and then finished third with a write-in campaign).

I’ll add one more thing. Our political parties are currently quite strong. Their weakest point, I’ve argued, is in the area of ritual, ceremony, and symbolism. Image. Normally, it doesn’t matter that lots and lots of people, at both the mass and elite level, behave as if they were intense partisans while swearing off the party label, and imagining themselves as insurgents against a party establishment that they envision as their enemy. In reality, very few “conservatives” are in fact principled conservatives; in actions, issue positions, and everything else they’re Republican partisans (and, for the most part, same on the Democratic side, although with somewhat different behavior patterns, I think). 

(I suppose I should make it clear that I’m not criticizing any of this; in my view, there are few things worse in politics than a true committed ideologue, while solid partisans are a healthy thing for any democracy).

But perhaps -- and again, this is speculative -- this is one place where it does matter. If people thought of themselves as Republicans, not conservatives, it might be a lot harder to get them to support a candidate on a third-party line, or a write-in candidate, against the duly nominated candidate of the Republican party. And it also might be more of a serious break with the party, similar to actually backing the other side (which is, still, a deal-breaker in most cases. and don’t tell me about Joe Lieberman unless you think he has even a slim chance of winning the Democratic nomination next time around). 

The last time the parties couldn’t enforce their own nominations, in the late 19th century, the results involved a complete overhaul of how Americans voted, which had all sort of consequences for how the parties evolved in the 20th century, and therefore how Americans governed themselves. I’m not predicted any similar overhaul today, but I do want to underscore that these types of issues are in fact terribly important, and I’ll be watching to see whether it was in fact a few flukes or the beginning of a new trend. 

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, alaska, colorado, david karol, tom tancredo, republican party

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