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A Specter Is Haunting Conservatives

April 28th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Ramesh Ponnuru on Specter’s party flip:

My initial reaction on hearing the news was that after generating a bunch of Democratic House seats, the Club for Growth has now produced its first Democratic senator. I assume that Specter’s votes will now move leftward.

There’s probably an Exit, Voice and Loyalty sort of point to make here. People in any group setting, whether a political party or a school, will often have two basic strategies at their disposal: Try to exert internal pressure to pull the group in a new direction, or defect and find (or form) a new group. These strategies are mutually reinforcing, since ability to exert influence within the group is enhanced by the threat of defection, at least on the assumption that (other things equal) people benefit to some extent from preserving the existing coaltions.  As in so many other strategic contexts, the most effective defection threat is the one you can credibly commit to even when carrying out the threat is worse for you. So, in other words, Specter says: You’d rather have me than a Democrat, so toe the line. (A third party? Go ahead… throooow your vote away! Mwahaha!)  The Club replies: Nope, we’ll vote for a conservative even if it sinks us in the general. They don’t actually want that result, naturally, but the point of a strong credible threat is that you don’t ever have to carry it out. The only problem is that a sufficiently strong candidate ends up with the opportunity to defect too. That leaves them in the worst possible outcome: Even if they’d carried out the threat, they could at least hope that with no incumbent in the race, their man would have a fighting chance. Against a popular incumbent, not so much—so the same candidate is returned to the Senate, but pushed to the left.

This is something of a general hurdle for a group that wants to pursue the Club’s strategy.  Your ability to threaten to shift support to a primary challenger is a function of the candidate’s defiance of the base—he needs to have deviated enough that you can get people worked out about casting a ballot for someone else in protest. But an incumbent in a strong enough position to be exhibiting that level of defiance is probably in a strong enough position to be contemplating defection himself. Offhand, I’d guess the Club strategy would be more effective focusing on more vulnerable pols in their first few terms as a means of enforcing conformity on one or two super-salient issues. Of course, given that a fracas like this may just serve to delegitimize the Club in the eyes of conservatives, the point may well be moot for the foreseeable future.

Tags: Economics · Horse Race Politics


       

 

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 nadezhda // Apr 28, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    JS wrote: Your ability to threaten to shift support to a primary challenger is a function of the candidate’s defiance of the base—he needs to have deviated enough that you can get people worked out about casting a ballot for someone else in protest. But an incumbent in a strong enough position to be exhibiting that level of defiance is probably in a strong enough position to be contemplating defection himself. Offhand, I’d guess the Club strategy would be more effective focusing on more vulnerable pols in their first few terms as a means of enforcing conformity on one or two super-salient issues.

    There’s one variable you’re overlooking — the overall ideological/party ID of the voting district or state. I think the base of each party can effectively challenge a deviant incumbent, or make a credible threat to throw him out in order to discipline his behavior, not only in the first couple of terms when incumbency is weaker but where the party enjoys a significant advantage qua party.

    When “progressives” have waged primary battles against apparently well-entrenched Democratic incumbents and succeeded in getting their candidates not just through the primary but elected, it’s most likely to work in districts where Democrats have a meaningful advantage. They can mobilize their base on the grounds that the incumbent isn’t representing the district’s preferences. And their challenger can win the election because the non-base Dems or independents are still willing to vote for Dems, not defect to the Republicans.

    Note that even when this strategy failed with Lieberman, he only managed the win by running as an Independent, not as a Republican, where he would have been likely to turn off his critical historical support from non-base Dems and independents.

    What makes the Club strategy so stupid in Pa is that it is not only a Blue state, but has been trending even bluer.

  • 2 Objectively Biased // Apr 28, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    A Specter of Evidence…

    So I’m writing about politics today because, in my opinion, today is the most exciting day in politics since we got Obama elected. There are several reasons why the news of Arlen Specter becoming a Democrat is exciting, and many of them have alre…

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