In 2016, America may have its widest political spectrum in recent presidential history. The usual course of presidential elections is to “contest the center,” as each party seeks to maximize its chances for victory. However, America currently sees both parties pulled toward the edge of their political range — and so strongly that neither may be able to run toward the middle next November.
Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has only one national election, its presidential one. Also unlike many other nations, our national election is really 51 separate elections, which determine the allocation of 538 electoral votes — a majority of which is needed to win.
Because these electoral votes are overwhelmingly awarded on a winner-take-all basis, each party’s incentive is to run as much toward the center of the political spectrum as it can, in order to maximize its chances of overall victory. The party that fails to do so — or equally importantly, is perceived not to do so — is almost invariably the loser.
However, next year, the historical trend may not hold.
The reason for this abrupt and unusual change is that both parties are simultaneously seeing the increasing ascendancy of America’s political “wings” — the right for Republicans, the left for Democrats — within them.
For Republicans, this trend has been clear for several years. And it has delivered great successes to them — the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Their pronounced dominance in governorships (31 Republicans, 18 Democrats, and 1 Independent) — the most successful of whom are conservative — is further proof.
Increasingly apparent is that Democrats have arrived at the same place from the opposite direction. While Obama has won by making his opponents seem more extreme, he himself is not seen by the general public to have governed from the center. Obama lost Independents 45% – 50% in 2012, and that gap widened to 42% – 54% for Democrats in 2014.
As a result, while Obama has won, his party has lost — more Senate seats than any president since Carter and House seats than any president since Eisenhower. These losses have cost Democrats their more conservative and moderate members. The result is a smaller, but also more liberal Congressional Democratic party.
In this year’s first three months, the evidence of Congressional Democrats’ leftward move is clear. Obama too has gone this direction. Clearly, this is where the party’s energy and engagement now lie.
Today’s ascendancy of America’s political wings in both parties could drive next year’s presidential primaries in the same directions. Undoubtedly, the left and right will be the political ground on which Democrats and Republicans respectively contest their nominations.
These fights will be fiercely waged in both policy and rhetoric. The outcome may well be nominees from these wings. However, even if “wing nominees” are not the result, the policies and rhetoric already launched may prevail in the general election too.
Each party will need its most devoted and energized followers in November. For both parties, that energy unquestionably comes from its dominant wing today. The result may be both parties are so staked to their dominant wing as to be unable to make the usual “move to the middle” in the general election.
The signs of not moving toward the middle are already apparent. Gone are the days when Republicans were concerned about being criticized for cutting spending. Similarly gone is the time when Democrats worried about being attacked for raising taxes. Both sides now fully embrace these positions.
Next year, the result may be an election that is more familiar in content to foreign observers than it is to Americans. It could also create an assemblage of political forces in Washington that is likewise very different from what America has been used to seeing. While we currently see a pitting of right versus left by default, in 2017 we may see it by design.
Washington gridlock has been bemoaned for some time in America. While it is seen as a political malfunction, it is actually an offsetting of political forces. That balancing has been brought about in part because of political parties’ historical desire to move toward the middle in presidential elections — thereby providing a center in American politics.
Next year, if that historical tendency to move toward the center is mutually abandoned, the gridlock that has seemingly prevailed for so long in Washington may disappear with it. And if it does not, it may reach even higher levels.
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