Extremism Is All Relative

Pundits say candidates may be hurt by ultra-conservative platforms in other states—but not so much in Texas


If you’re a Democrat and a baseball fan, it’s been a rough week. Between last night’s would-be perfect game and Al and Tipper’s splitsville announcement, times have been tough. Well, dry your eyes. I have some good news and some bad news for the Democrats. (The baseball folks are already in enough pain.)

After last week’s primaries in Alabama, as we wait to see what will happen in Kentucky, a few pundits began a tumultuous debate about and whether there is a point at which the Republicans can get too extreme. Yesterday, Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic argued the Tea Party movement had exacted large costs for the GOP. Fivethirtyeight, the statistical approach to political blogging, pointed out that most voters don’t care about Nancy Pelosi, and the attempts to tie incumbent Democratic reps to the House speaker, whom Republicans love to paint as the Democrats’ exemplary extremist, aren’t likely to go far.

Sparking debate, Alan Abramowitz, a voting behavior specialist at Emory University, offered a post on The Democratic Strategist titled “Move Right and Lose: Evidence from the 2000-2008 US Senate Elections.” Oomph. Abramowitz argued senators who run as extreme conservatives don’t do as well electorally as their more moderate colleagues. “Based on these results, efforts by the Tea Party movement and other conservative activists to purge moderate incumbents and pressure Republican candidates into taking more consistently conservative positions are likely to have a detrimental impact on the GOP’s performance in future elections.”

Let me translate that: Democrats, this is your good news.

And it gets better. Abramowitz posted two days later, showing that the same “extremism” on the left doesn’t lead to the same problem. Ultra-liberal senators didn’t see the same costs in elections as their ultra-conservative counterparts.

But wait, Democrats. Don’t start dancing in the streets quite yet.

I called Abramowitz to ask if his findings spelled hope for folks like Bill White in Texas. His answer? Well, not exactly. Texas, it seems, is a special case.

“Someone like Perry could be vulnerable because he’s so conservative,” he said. But then again, “It’s pretty hard in Texas to be too conservative, at least in the Republican primary.”

It turns out that Abramowitz’s findings are more relevant to swing states. For example, Sen. Tom Harkin is more liberal than Iowa, the state he represents, but he’s done just fine, while those more conservative than the state, like Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, can find themselves out of office. In Texas, Abramowitz says, the voting population is pretty extreme.

Since the ’50s, the traditional view of voting behavior has been that successful candidates try to accommodate the “median voter,” and that those candidates who took strongly conservative or strongly liberal stances would repel such median, moderate voters. But as electoral districts have become more ideologically homogenous, pandering to the moderates isn’t as important as appealing to the base.

“If you’re in a strongly Republican district, you don’t want to move to the center,” says Abramowitz. “Any gain you might get … would be offset by the risk of being attacked as a RINO.” So much for tradition.

But wait! scream Dems. What about the findings, the bad news for conservatives—he promised they’d be hurt electorally!

In most cases, “It’s not going to hurt [the conservative] enough to matter,” Abramowitz explained. In other words, being an ultra-conservative can hurt, but not as much being a moderate.

“When you come under a strong challenge is when it can make a difference,” Abramowitz said. “If you have a strong Democratic challenger and there’s enough resources to make people aware.” Wonder if one of those will emerge.

In the mean time, baseball fans, Bud Selig might just reverse that call.