November 11, 2010

Kang: The Tea Party and a Supply-Side Approach to Party Polarization

Here is a guest post from Michael Kang:

    There has been a great deal of post-election debate about the Tea Party's contributions to Republican success this year, but an irony is that three-way races precipitated by Tea Party candidates in Florida and Alaska also suggest a new approach to reversing the party polarization of which the Tea Party itself is symptomatic. Reforms to reduce polarization usually have focused on the demand side of party politics (i.e., the mix of voters), mainly by moderating the primary electorate through open or blanket primary formats.. A different approach to moderating major party politics might be instead to loosen the supply side of politics (i.e., the mix of candidates) by opening up the process for candidates to reach the general election ballot without a major party nomination, even while retaining the basic system of major party nominations and first-past-the post elections. This year's races provide at least a couple examples of how this approach might work.

    Look at the Florida and Alaska races for U.S. Senator, where incumbent statewide officeholders--Charlie Crist and Lisa Murkowski--entered the general election as independent candidates without their former party's nomination. Both were well-known Republicans and more moderate than the Tea Party candidates who won the Republican nomination in those races. Crist's and Murkowski's entries as independents into the general election, at minimum, offered a credible but more centrist alternative to the Republican nominee than voters otherwise would have had. Crist did not win the election in Florida, but he pressured the Republican nominee Marc Rubio to tack more clearly to the center than Rubio otherwise might have. Murkowski's independent candidacy in the Alaska race did not move Republican nominee Joe Miller as much toward the political center, but Miller might pay the electoral price and fail to win as the Republican nominee in an overwhelmingly conservative state. Murkowski, despite running as a write-in independent, is likely to win re-election after the process plays out, putting into office a more centrist senator than the Tea Party candidate who otherwise would have won the election.

    So, the Tea Party experiences in Florida and Alaska suggest how centrist pressure can be applied by loosening the grip of the major party bases (which have become increasingly polarized) on ballot access and allowing credible politicians to bypass their parties more easily when ideological demands become more extreme. In a forthcoming paper in Georgetown Law Journal, I argue that a specific supply-side reform that could work this way is the repeal of sore loser laws that block primary losers from running in the subsequent general election. Almost every state has such a law, and sore loser laws this year blocked more centrist candidates like Trey Greyson and Mike Castle from even considering a sore loser candidacy against more extreme Tea Party rivals who defeated them in the primary. (Only the absence of a sore loser law in Connecticut permitted Joe Lieberman to run as a sore loser in 2006 after his primary defeat.) Of course, most primary losers will choose not to run as a sore loser for political reasons, regardless of the law, but even the legal opportunity to do so at all looms as a threat that pushes the polarized major party bases more toward the center before and during the primary process. In this way, a repeal of sore loser laws would mitigate polarization, while still retaining the basics of party nominations and first-past-the-post elections. Major parties would continue their central role in nominating candidates and signaling important information to voters, but they would simply relinquish what is usually a monopoly on meaningful ballot access in general elections for serious candidates.

    It is easy to view ballot access outside the major parties as largely inconsequential in the American system because, just as we'd expect under Duverger's Law, most independent and minor party candidates right now are marginal performers who do not win elections. However, there is an important connection between ballot access in the general election for independents and minor parties on one hand and the intraparty politics of the major parties on the other hand. Freer ballot access in the general election for independents and minor parties offers credible politicians within the major parties more opportunities to bypass the ideological veto of their party base when party demands become extreme. Conversely, tighter ballot access restrictions for the general election give the dominant groups within the major parties greater legal leverage over more moderate dissenters by making them more dependent on the party bases for ballot access. We can see in the Florida and Alaska races a hint of how ballot access outside the major parties actually might have an important effect on intraparty politics and how less restrictive ballot access might moderate politics from the supply side in today's polarized major parties.

Posted by Rick Hasen at November 11, 2010 09:53 AM