The paradox of our politics


Our nation’s polarized politics violates traditional theories of voting, which hold that parties move to the center to appeal to as many voters as possible. Today, incentives compel parties to do the opposite by appealing to their base. It’s as if the magnetic force field that once induced parties to appeal to moderate and independent voters has been reversed.

But in an unexpected way, the party that ignores these new incentives has the best chance of winning. Appealing to what is called the median voter still decides elections because the Republican and Democratic parties are so competitive. Provided that neither party is dominant, both unable to attract a majority coalition, moderate and independent voters still determine the outcome of elections.     

Highly ideological and polarized voters comprise the base of each party. Candidates have an incentive to appeal to them because these voters are donors and activists, and are more likely to cast a ballot. Candidates also flatter the base because they are concerned about job security, as this can protect candidates from being primaried. The base also encourages ideologically dogmatic candidates at the expense of more genial nominees who have broader appeal. Incentives now operate to mobilize the base as opposed to persuading voters outside of it.

The incentives that pull parties toward their base would be even more powerful if the parties weren’t so competitive. The Republican and Democratic bases are about even in size, and Senate and House majorities are razor thin. Competitiveness means that American elections are still won in the middle, attracting moderate and independent voters. Small shifts among these voters now determine large shifts in the balance of power between the parties. The emergence of highly ideological and polarized party bases might have deprived moderate and independent voters of their superpowers by shifting party incentives away from competing for their support, but until a majority party emerges, moderate and independent voters will continue to play a disproportionate role in election outcomes. 

Parties that resist their natural inclinations to serve the base perform better than those that don’t. For example, the Republican Party in 2020 and 2022 found it hard to attract moderate and independent voters because Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure to them. Satisfying the base came at the expense of attracting moderates and independents. In 2020, Trump suffered the revenge of the median voter as independents deserted him. No group shifted more in their voting from 2016 to 2020 than independents, contributing to Biden’s victory.  

In the 2022 midterms, Republicans again suffered at the hands of independent voters who tilted Democratic, despite the party in power typically losing these voters in midterm elections by an average of 14 points over the last 15 years. Democratic support among independent voters explains why the party did surprisingly well in the 2022 midterms, overcoming a higher turnout among Republicans than Democrats in the election.  

The polar force fields have reversed themselves with incentives now encouraging candidates to satisfy their base and not the median voter. But candidates who follow these incentives do so at their peril because moderate and independent voters determine election outcomes between two evenly matched parties. Paradoxically, the best way for candidates to win elections is to resist self-interest, defy incentives and challenge their base.

The lock Donald Trump has on the Republican Party base at the presidential level and the influence the dogmatic Freedom Caucus exerts within the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives will make it hard for the GOP to pivot to attract the median voter in the 2024 elections. The power these forces exert within the Republican Party comes at the expense of winning battleground states and competitive House districts. Trumpies are more concerned with imposing their brand on the GOP than extending its appeal. We saw this once before in our history when the South was content to be part of a losing Democratic coalition from 1896 to 1932 so long as the party defended segregation. Sometimes party factions are more interested in exerting power within their party than outside of it. They want the party to reflect their values even if this consigns them to losing.  

President Biden just has to play safe, not try to hit winners but return the ball over the net, to prevail in 2024. The Democratic base may find such a strategy insipid and uninspiring, but he should resist incentives to appease them. Biden owed his victory in 2020 to independent voters and Democratic House and Senate candidates did better than anyone expected thanks to these voters in 2022. In 2024, Biden and the Democrats can flirt with their base but had better remember to save the last dance for those who brought them to the party. 

The Democratic base may find this approach unprincipled but should recall that independents lack the resources and connections to compete with them over personnel and policy once the election is over. Presidents and members of Congress no longer feel the need to appease independent voters because they lack organizations, leaders, and a unifying program. The problem with independents, as Henry Kissinger once reportedly complained about Europe, is that there is no phone number anyone can call to speak to them. As the leader of the United Mine Workers John L. Lewis once replied to those who criticized him for using Communists as union organizers, “Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog.” Independents may provide the margins for Democrats to win elections, but the base reasserts itself when it comes time to govern.   

Alan Draper is an emeritus professor of government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

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