It has long been a truism of American politics that to win the party nomination for president one has to run to the party’s extremes, and to win the general election for president one has to run to the middle. This means that Democrats need to run to the extreme left while Republicans need to run to the extreme right. Of course, this means that party activists on either side of the aisle fail to pick candidates that appeal to the majority of American voters.
Does this mean that the American political system is no longer capable of selecting candidates with broad appeal? One would think that out of a field of 24 candidates for the Democratic party nomination that one or two would stake a middle position as a contrast to the rest of the pack that continues to move increasingly to the left. Each candidates feels the need to be more to the left than others.
Still, one would think that the person who runs to the middle, even in the primaries, demonstrates that s/he is perhaps more electable. Or at least this would be consistent with the classic 1960 publication of The American Voter by Angus Campbell, Phillip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes. Here the argument was that candidates appealing to voters who were in the middle were more likely to win general elections.
This idea was also consistent with another idea found in economics, which is the median voter theorem. One version of the median voter theorem holds that the median voter decides the size of government. That is, the greater the distance between the median voter’s income and the average income of society, the greater is the level of inequality. Therefore, the response will be redistribution, in which case the median voter will decide the level of redistribution. As redistribution will require a greater role for government, the median is effectively opting for a larger size government.
The political version of the median voter holds that the voter in the middle of the spectrum ultimately decides the composition of government in terms of party and ideology. The median voter, in short, decides the election, which means that candidates that run to either extreme cannot possibly win. Of course, this raises the obvious question of why candidates are running to their respective party extremes?
Before we explore why, let’s see what happens when we put both the economic version of the median voter theorem together with the political version. If the voter in the middle of the political spectrum is the same as the voter in the middle of the income distribution, it has to follow that the median voter may decide the size of government, but only indirectly. First the median voter is deciding the composition of the government and what set of policies based on the candidates’ presentation of them that best reflect the values and preferences of the median voter.
This means that the median voter could be opting for a larger government if in fact the median voter opts for candidates running on a program of more active government and more spending on programs. But the median voter could also be opting for a smaller government if the median voter instead opts for candidates running on a program of more limited government, fewer programs, and less spending.
According to the economic version, it is the distance between the median voter’s income and the average income of society that determines whether the median voter ultimately opts for less government or more government. In other words, the more inequality there is, the more likely the median voter is to opt for larger government, and the less inequality there is the more likely the median voter is to opt for smaller government.
All of this, of course, presupposes that public officials listen to voters at all generally, and pay attention to the median voter more specifically. But as most public officials are only responsive to the affluent, it is highly unlikely the median voter decides anything at all.
Here is where our 24 contenders for the Democratic party nomination come in. If they can manipulate the public and lead them to believe that income inequality is increasing and poses a serious threat to our democracy, they should be able to run on even more leftist platforms of redistribution and win. At issue here is which candidate best speaks to the level of redistribution desired by the median voter.
Still, there is a problem here. The median voter of the Democratic party is not the same as the median voter of the general electorate. Moreover, the median voter among Democratic party activists — those most likely to participate in primaries and nominating caucuses — is also not the same as the median voter among the entire registered Democratic party electorate.
Campbell et. al. assumed that through traditional measures of public opinion, candidates for office could then identify the median voter. But unless campaigns are actually looking at income figures in a particular political region, can we really identify the median voter? At least 22 of our 24 contenders for the Democratic party nomination are making no efforts to identify the median voter, at least in economic terms.
Of course, they don’t feel they need to because, as all elites do, they profess to know what is good for them. But the candidate that truly wants to win, especially in the general election would take greater steps to identify the median voter in terms of where that voter sits on the income distribution.
Were this to be a serious campaign with candidates presenting a range of different views, our more “centrist” candidates would take steps to seriously identify the median voter and then discuss which policies would best meet the real median voter’s needs. Until that happens, there will continue to be a disconnect between candidates and the voting public. Unfortunately, this disconnect only mirrors the parallel disconnect between elites and the general public.