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The Republican Party’s Blind Spot

- November 13, 2008

Kathleen Bawn, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel and John Zaller’s “paper”:http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/hcn4/Downloads/ToP%20October%205.pdf, _A Theory of Political Parties_ has been getting a lot of “attention”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/nixonland.pdf, and for good reason. It proposes a new theory of political parties which puts interest groups at the forefront. Roughly speaking, Bawn et al. argue that parties are best thought of as a means through which interest groups (by which they mean any group with a specific and intense set of goals differing from the majority) try to form coalitions among themselves so as to get politicians elected who will advance their collective policy aims. Parties are able to respond to their interest groups’ demands, even when they deviate from voters’ preferences, because voters have a ‘blind spot’ – as long as parties don’t appear to move _too_ far towards the extremes, voters won’t pay sufficient attention to what they are doing to punish them. Thus, parties are likely to move as far as they believe they can in the relevant direction towards the edge of the blind spot while staying within it. That way they can keep their interest groups happy, while not getting punished by the voters.

Even if party politicians are (as Bawn et al. argue they are) uncertain of exactly where the edges of the blind spot lie, one can make some predictions about their behavior. First, “Politicians will systematically give more weight to the risks of extremism, i.e., the risks of straying outside the blind spot, thereby guaranteeing electoral defeat.” Second, party politicians will ‘obfuscate’ (by hiding the details of deal making) and ‘bamboozle’ (by sequencing votes in ways that allow them to appear to support measures they oppose and vice-versa) so as to expand the effective limits of the electorate’s blind spot. Third, parties will occasionally test the limits of voter tolerance by proposing ‘extreme’ candidates to see whether they can win despite the party’s expectation (which would suggest that the blind spot is bigger than they previously believed). Fourth, when this doesn’t work, they will be likely to choose a more moderate candidate the next time around to increase their chances of winning.

This perhaps provides a rationale for understanding why the Republican party chose John McCain as its nominee in the presidential race – he was the most ‘moderate’ seeming credible candidate. McCain did of course have to moderate his moderation during the primaries and the general election for fear that he would alienate the conservative base. The interesting question is whether Bawn et al. has any predictive value for who the Republicans will nominate in 2012, and for how that person will present himself or herself.

If their argument works in this instance, the Republicans will nominate someone who at least is able successfully to present themselves as moderate and falling within the blind spot. If not, they will nominate someone who is more obviously ‘extreme’ on the belief that the Republican problem this time out was presenting a mixed message rather than articulating core Republican and conservative principles. It’s of course completely unclear at this point which they will choose, but much of the “initial rhetoric”:http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/11/13/the_anatomy_of_conservative_se/ suggests that they may go for the latter rather than the former; the leaders of some prominent Republican factions are arguing that McCain lost because he _wasn’t Republican enough._ If they do go in this direction, this won’t invalidate Bawn et al.’s argument (which is about broad tendencies rather than ineluctable principles) but it will suggest that the Republicans aren’t being ‘rational’ (in the sense that the Republican coalition will not rationally seek to maximize its chances of winning in the kind of environment that the article describes).