Still A Zero Sum, Two-Party Game

by: Chris Bowers

Thu Aug 06, 2009 at 14:40

President Obama's approval ratings are, as was probably inevitable in this type of economic climate, declining. The Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot is eroding (I see no reason to exclude Rasmussen from that average). Job ratings for congressional Democrats are also going down. Fewer Americans are self-identifying as Democrats, too.

At the same time, Republicans are not showing an increase in support. Fewer Americans are also self-identifying as Republicans, and the GOP has made up no ground in partisan self-identification. Republicans have not increased their numbers in the generic congressional ballot, even though they are closer to Democrats than before. The Republican Party is viewed as, or more, unfavorably than it was in late 2008. Further, congressional Republicans have not seen any increase in their job approval during 2009.

Overall, what we are seeing so far is not a shift toward Republicans from Democrats, but rather an increase in the number of people who dislike both parties and have become "undecided" as a result. As such, if 2010 was a presidential election year, I would say this environment was ripe for a Perot-style, third-party challenge to once again break into the double-digits of popular support. The best bet for such a challenge would be an anti-Wall Street General, given the extremely low popularity of Wall Street and the high favorability maintained by the military.

For such a challenge to reach 15%-20% national support, the American exceptionalist, Perot line of anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-war, and now, in our own era, pro-coal is probably the best bet. It wouldn't win, but it would temporarily shake a lot of voters loose. Such voters would mainly come from the Republican coalition.

However, 2010 is not a presidential election. As such, given the consistently poor performance of third-parties in congressional elections, it is highly unlikely that increasing dissatisfaction with both parties will lead to a third-party breakthrough in the midterms. Here are the national popular vote totals for all third parties, combined, in House elections since 1978 (more in the extended entry):

Chris Bowers :: Still A Zero Sum, Two-Party Game
Third-party % of National House Popular Vote, 1978-2008
1978: 1.9%
1980: 2.1%
1982: 2.5%
1984: 1.3%
1986: 2.3%
1988: 1.5%
1990: 4.1%
1992: 5.3%
1994: 6.1%
1996: 4.1%
1998: 4.9%
2000: 5.7%
2002: 5.4%
2004: 4.2%
2006: 3.9%
2008: 2.8%

Third parties have not done well in congressional elections. Even the minor third-party boomlet of 1990-2004, which never produced more than two independents in the House (and Bernie Sanders was the only candidate elected on a third-party ticket), has waned in recent years. The reason for this is that the most prominent third "parties" tend to be little more than cults of personality for prominent individual candidates (Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Ralph Nader, Joe Lieberman). When you have to run candidates in 400+ congressional districts, the cult of personality model doesn't fare well.

So, we remain in a zero-sum, two-party game. While Republicans have not gained in popularity, in order to reduce the size of the Democratic majorities in Congress, they don't necessarily have to do so (at least in 2010). Simply closing the gap on Democrats would be enough. This could result in significantly reduced voter turnout, which would also benefit Republicans, as polling in Virginia currently shows.

Democrats are not going to be bailed out by a third-party, or by continuing dislike of Republicans. More than anything else, what they need right now is for the economy to turn around.

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The economy will also be decisive for the future of the Left (0.00 / 0)
will it be a James Howard Kunstler, Peak-Oil, Climate Crisis generation?

Or will it be Global Institution, Keynesian Fiat money, capitalism-with-a-human-face, social issues oriented Left?

If the economy turns around in an enduring way, then the European social-management paradigm will rule. A conservative Left.

If population, resource, and environmental pressures wreck society, then we will have to have a major throw down between generations of Leftists over what the Big Picture is all about.

It won't be long before we have the answer.

I just wish Obama didn't gamble on a trickle-down recovery...

I wonder if there'll be a challenge (4.00 / 2)
from Obama's left in 2012. I suppose there's no one out there with the credibility-stature to make a dent, aside from Feingold, but he won't do it.

But increasingly the issues call for a challenge. Speaking of,

Forty-one percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday say they favor the war in Afghanistan - down 9 points from May, when CNN polling suggested that half of the public supported the war. Fifty-four percent say they oppose the war in Afghanistan, up 6 points from May.


Very interesting (4.00 / 3)
This would actually be sommething a Perot-style challenge could capitalize upon. The Perot line actually opposes war, not becuase they care about life that much, but  simply because it is viewed as a waste of American life and money overseas. Its an anti-foreign thing.

I also wonder if people support a change in Afghan policy, ie, withdrawal.

[ Parent ]
opposing the continuation of war in afghanistan would be really smart, and moral, of (4.00 / 3)
the left right now.  it is a perfect issue to leverage popular will against the obama administration in a way that pushes them to the left.  

[ Parent ]
Also this finding (4.00 / 3)
Three-quarters of Democrats oppose the war.

[ Parent ]
That would lead to sure defeat... (0.00 / 0)
...but, hey, Ted Kennedy was certainly happy with the result of 30 years of Ronald Reagan when he helped wreck Carter's chance at re-election...

The right desperately wants Obama to become another "Jimmy Carter 'failure'", and it seems that the left wants that, too...  

Amazing how the left gravitates towards losing... We just can't fathom the concept of actually winning elections, making deals to get things like health reform passed (better to fail and get nothing so we can cry about it later).... so, we try every way to sabotage ourselves... I guess it's easier to just continue losing and complain then to actually win and make some deals in order to do so...

BTW, Rasmussen just polled Clinton vs. Palin in 2012... 'cos they want that primary challenge to Obama as much as the the OpenLefters do... your playing right into the right's hands..

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!

[ Parent ]
As much as SOME of the OpenLefters do... (0.00 / 0)
fixing my statement...

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!

[ Parent ]
1980 (4.00 / 2)
Ted Kennedy had a lot less to do with Jimmy Carter's problems than the Ayatollah and the American captives in Iran.  Night after night it got pounded home on TV.  Add in double digit inflation pounded by the Republicans as the key part of the misery index and Carter's chances were hurting.

It came down to the steep rise in oil prices (accounting for much of the inflation), the captives (America Held Hostage: Day XXX), and bad luck.  The rescue attempt failed.  Oil prices zoomed and parts of the Northeast had an epically bad winter in 1977-78.  Jimmy's sweater speech may have had the right content but it had the wrong tone.  The media gave Reagan a pass but was relentless with Jimmy.  The Killer Rabbit Jokes were repeated endlessly.  The media picked apart his micro managing.  The Russians invaded Afghanistan and the initial result actually (hah) looked good.  Carter collapsed while participating in a road race.  He was portrayed as weak, ineffectual and well meaning.  Frequently.  The economy was portrayed as worse than it was (this was before Reagan changed the unemployment figures in 1986; compared to W it was a pretty strong ecomomy simply not as good as Kennedy/Johnson or Bill Clinton).

One other thing.  The religious right basically went all out for Reagan in their first big show.  Carter was elected in 1976 more as a southerner than a Democrat.  He took 12 of 13 southern states and barely missed in Virginia.  It was (and remains) the best Democratic showing in the south post-FDR.  He had the Watergate mess at his back.  He still got IIRC 297 electoral votes.  Any problems were likely to sink Carter and he had a lot.  Reagan aimed heavy for the south and broke the back of Carter's campaign.  

[ Parent ]
It would suggest certain defeat (4.00 / 3)
Only 4 incumbent presidents since 1900 have failed to win re-election. Each one faced a significant primary challenger in their re-election year:

1912: Taft faced Roosevelt, Taft went on to lose general
1976: Ford faced Reagan, Ford went on to lose
1980: Carter faced Kennedy, Carter went on to lose
1992: Bush faced Buchanan, Bush went on to lose

However, note that in my subject line I used the word "suggest" and not "lead to." The primary challenge is a symptom of an unpopular president likely to lose anyway. Taft, Ford, Carter and Bush were all unpopular going into their re-election bids and the primary challenge was spurred by folks within the party dissatisfied enough to try and take out the leader.

If Obama faced a primary challenge in 2012 it would be a sign that he is A) unpopular and likely to not get re-elected anyway and B) that the base is unhappy and unlikely to put in the work needed to help re-elect.

My guess is memories of 2000 and the Bush years will be strong enough to prevent a Dem primary challenge to Obama, but probably not strong enough to motivate the kind of outpouring of grassroots support that propelled Obama into the White House in 2008.

Which isn't to say Obama is doomed. He's not. But 2012 is going to be very difficult, and if he does not deliver a big win on health care, then his presidency will be in very serious trouble.

[ Parent ]
The mistake is (0.00 / 0)
wrongly assuming the outpouring of grassroots support was what propelled Obama into the White House.

[ Parent ]
Duverger's Law (4.00 / 1)
Chris, the two party game is nothing new and we can't expect anything else based on the electoral system in this country.  It's a founding principle of political science election studies that when a system is run as winner-take-all, single member districts, where all that is needed is 50%+1 to win, a two-party system will form.  Look at places like Germany or France for evidence that proportional representation increases the number of viable political parties and a stronger representation of the people.

The thing is (4.00 / 1)
Even in Germany and France two parties still dominate politics, even though smaller parties have representation and play a larger role.

There aren't very many western democracies that actually have a functioning multiparty system where more than two parties have a realistic chance at governing the country.

[ Parent ]
But in Germany and France (0.00 / 0)
you still need to form a coalition to govern, so in a way, they are two party systems, just the two parties are coalitions.  

[ Parent ]
grand coalitions do not equate to two party system (4.00 / 1)
The two responding above to bluenebraska miss the point, I believe.

In comparing the US experience to that in northern and western Europe, they are correct that there are effectively two large governing coalitions competing and each is dominated by a "conservative" party (e.g. the CD) and a "liberal" party (e.g. labor parties).

But in assuming that because coalitions are formed that the political and electoral systems function (more or less) as in the US is incorrect.

Because of proportional representation and a parliamentary system, the two main parties must in fact deliver to their smaller coalition members.  They must deliver in the composition of their governments, particular agencies, or in their support/opposition to some policy.  Thus smaller parties exert sometimes substantial influence over the nature and direction of national governance.  All the more so in places where the potential of a vote of no confidence helps keep larger partners honest.

In the US, without PR, and in a winner take all context, those that would be members of these smaller parties both in and out of parliament (in the Norwegian context with which I am most familiar, say the greens or Sosialistisk Venstreparti or the farmer's parties) are incorporated within the Dems.  Elements which can be tamed and cowed and with supporters that cannot effectively influence the major party.

In every case two parties dominate one or another coalition.  But the influence of smaller parties is not small; in a number of ways they in fact help in "governing the country".  It is why the greens in Germany were able to place Fischer at the top of the foreign ministry and why they were able to extract a no new nukes position.  In the US, such forces, from within the Dems, would be given membership to a special committee and their report would be roundfiled. My opinion is that the differences in the substance and rhythm of governing between the two contexts is much too large to so readily equate them.  

Obviously there are many other pertinent differences beyond electoral structures.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

[ Parent ]
It's not just the economy that has the dictator's approval ratings declining. (0.00 / 0)
It's virtually everything he's done in the office of the presidency - from letting war criminals off the hook for their crimes to expanding the width and scope thereof, and from retaining or installing right-wing policy-makers in his cabinet to the exclusion of the left - that has him in declining popularity.  He is, just as Mike Gravel predicted he would, failing to deliver on all the hopes and expectations put in him by his followers.

Fusion Voting - Working Families Party Style - Is the Way to Go (0.00 / 0)
The problem with 3rd parties in the 20th Century, is that most of them were hoping to make gains purely at the expense of one of the two big ones.

The secret to winning real victories is with 'fusion' voting, allowing minor parties to compete AND cooperate. Being a spoiler mostly spoils things, as Nader proved (the hard way). It's a much better way to hold Democrats accountable to the promises they make.

Oregon recently enacted a law allowing for Fusion. Many states have Working Families Parties, including DE, SC, CT and, of course, OR.

Learn more at http://www.workingfamiliespart...

Working Families Party online street team was here


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