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Monday, January 6, 2014

Hotelling redrawn: party dilemmas in a primary system

In August I posted an Economic Model of Elections. The new academic term began today, and the class following mine was preparing to look at a version of that model as their intro topic. Then a colleague stopped in and we chatted about the same thing. As a result I redid my graphs. First, the basic Hotelling model (dating to 1929), or to political scientists the median voter model, predicts centrist politics in a single member, one vote per person electoral system. All vote for the candidate closest to them in political stance. Candidates who try to stake a position away from the center get trounced, as their opponent will move closer to their position and pick up more than half the vote.

In the US national elections come after party primaries. While there are splinter parties, there are only two main parties, as seems to be the case in all (mature) single member district systems (Duverger's Law). In such systems, the same logic applies: at the primary stage, candidates adopt positions at the center of their party, but then must scramble to reinvent themselves come the general election. Flip-flops are required by our system because a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican will find it hard to win their primary. Now that seems to be a good depiction of the Democrats, with former a University of Chicago law prof sitting in the White House carrying on many of the policies of his predecessor. That doesn't seem to fit the larger political scene. Clinton was a master of repositioning himself, but more important was also keenly aware of the power of Hotelling's logic, nudging his entire party to the right so as to dominate the electoral scene. His successors were less smart, and when the splinter candidate of Ralph Nader unified much of the left, Al Gore tried to counter his influence by staying to the left, rather than moving to the center. The result was an electoral loss against an otherwise unremarkable candidate who only barely managed to carry the state in which his brother was governor.

the US needs a Ralph Nader of the right

The first modification is to note that in the US there are splinter parties on the left (the Greens, and very small Socialist and Communist parties). However, there are none worth noting on the Right. So we can simply erase the Left as having electoral relevance. The next effect is to shift the entire political spectrum to the right. (In Japan a different electoral system allows multiple parties to exists, but the Left is fragmented, which again allows conservatives to call the shots.)

But we now have an additional factor: the fringe is less pragmatic, and since the fringe on the right remains within the Republican Party, that pulls the entire party further to the right, because any Republican candidate who moves too far to the center loses their vote. Among Democrats, that's much less the case. The net efect is to pull the entire political spectrum even further to the right. Again, Obama is evidence of that – if we went back to the 1970s and assigned him to a party based on what he's done, he'd be stuck in the Republican camp.

To date the Republican right – the Tea Party, religious conservatives, ethnonationalists ["racists"] have been funded by people wise enough (or egotistical enough to think they could buy the entire party) to not splinter. Maybe it's just for lack of a sufficiently charismatic leader. But if splinter they do, then politics will normalize. Republicans who survive a primary will be less ideological, and more centrist. The US needs a Ralph Nader of the right.

mike smitka

with thanks to Craig McCaughrin and Martin Davies