The middle-of-the-roaders get their turn

Political scientist says last week's election results showed the benefits of counting on consensus instead of polarization

November 12, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun staff

For years, political scientist Morris Fiorina has been going against the tide of conventional political wisdom that points to the growing polarization of the nation's electorate.

The Stanford faculty member says that voters are not all that polarized, that there is actually a broad consensus on many seemingly divisive issues. He blames the political system for forcing voters to stake out polarized positions.

"I'm feeling really good today," Fiorina said after last week's elections. "I think it was the revenge of moderation, the revenge of the middle."

That is certainly not everyone's view of what happened on Tuesday when a Democratic tide swept the nation.

Though much has been made of the success of socially conservative Democrats such as Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says they are in the distinct minority.

"Those were the tiny minority. The vast majority of the House races that Democrats won were liberal, progressive Democrats running to the left of moderate Republicans," he said. "As a result, the Democratic caucus will be more liberal, not more centrist."

And without those moderates, the Republican caucus will be more conservative, Schaller said.

But if either party now tries to retreat toward its ideological extreme, Fiorina says, it will be in trouble. He argues that in this election, voters rejected the strategy that tries to divide them into competing camps.

"The [appeal to the] base strategy that [Karl] Rove got away with as long as things were going well does not work when there is no slack in the electorate," he said.

What works, Fiorina said, is to appeal to the middle where the parties can actually find consensus among most of the population on issues normally seen as divisive, such as abortion and gun control.

As Exhibit A, Fiorina points to the victories of two candidates he has mentioned in the past as the type of centrists who rarely get to the political main stage - Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joseph I. Lieberman.

Republican Schwarzenegger was easily re-elected governor of California, while Democrat-turned-independent Lieberman cruised back into the Senate from Connecticut.

Both made it to the ballot by means other than the standard party primary process. Schwarzenegger became California's governor in an unprecedented recall election and Lieberman lost Connecticut's Democratic primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont before running as an independent.

"I did the numbers," Fiorina said. "Lamont's vote in the primary was 5.7 percent of the Connecticut voting-age population.

"You hold the election inside a minority of the state, registered Democrats, because a plurality in Connecticut are registered independents, the turnout is low because it's a primary, then you have a narrow victory," he said.

His point is that when candidates are chosen in party primaries, they are picked by this tiny slice of the population, party activists, those most likely to take more extreme positions. This makes it difficult for centrists, who represent the views of most people, to get onto a general election ballot.

Schwarzenegger tried the politics of divisiveness last year, forcing a showdown with the Legislature and, when he lost, putting some of his failed measures on the ballot. The voters killed him. His popularity plummeted. So he did something unusual - he said he was wrong and apologized. He started working with the Legislature and came up with compromises. The voters rewarded him last week.

"Schwarzenegger rides to an easy re-election, but three-quarters of a million voters did something different one line down on the ballot where Tom McClintock, a movement conservative, was running for lieutenant governor," Fiorina said. "They would not vote for a Republican like that and he lost by 4 or 5 points.

"Schwarzenegger is the model, whether or not they will follow it, for how Republicans can still carry states like this," he said.

Policies are certainly important, but, as Schwarzenegger's success shows, voters clearly give out a lot of style points as well. Imagine how different this election might have been if the situation had been exactly the same in Iraq, but Bush and other administration officials had been admitting mistakes and asking for help from Democrats and whoever else might have any ideas.

"People realize that one side does not have all the answers," Fiorina said. "They want to see some cooperation, some deliberation, not, `My way or the highway.'"

The helps explain the success of Lieberman, adamantly pro-war, in an overwhelmingly anti-war year. Whatever his position, Connecticut voters saw him as a reasonable voice in a polarized capital.

Besides, Lieberman did not run with the albatross of the Republican Party around his neck in a blue state. Though stung by losing his party's primary, he said he would caucus with the Democrats in the Senate.

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