The Ideology Gamble
Last year, people all over the political universe were calling Republicans crazy for rejecting the more moderate Mike Castle, Sue Lowden, and Jane Norton for the more extreme Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck. After all, those three Senate seats would have been enough to shift the majority from the Democrats to the Republicans.
The response from many in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is that it’s better to lose with a “real” conservative than to win with a RINO. Is that position really all that crazy? It’s worth investigating, given that this year’s leading Presidential candidates, other than Mitt Romney, have all been working diligently to find just how far off the right end of the political spectrum they can go.
If a voter’s goal in the voting booth is merely to ensure that as many members of Congress as possible have Rs after their names, then the political strategy of aiming for the most ideologically pure candidate is counterproductive. But voters make their choices for a number of different reasons. The political party name is a brand, a shorthand for a bigger, more complex concept.
What matters to many voters (one would hope it’s most voters) is the government policies advocated by the candidate. Therefore, to such voters, the degree to which the candidate aligns with their desired policies determines their overall satisfaction with that candidate.
The impact of this is significant. To understand how it can rationally lead to votes for Christine O’Donnell, consider the following scenario.
You roll a die. If you get a four, five, or six, you collect a dollar. If you get a one, two, or three, you pay a dollar. Over the long run, assuming a fair die, you should end up with the same amount of money you started with.
Now let’s say that you’re given a choice. You can stick with the model I described above (Model A), or you can go with a different model (Model B), where you win only if you roll a five or six…but if you win, you collect three dollars. You pay a dollar if you roll anything else.
Two-thirds of the time, you’ll pay a dollar, but the remaining third of the time you’ll collect three. Roll 300 times, and (on average) you’ll be up $100. It’s less likely on any given roll that you’ll win, but with a payoff big enough to overcome the longer odds against winning.
To serious conservatives, Castle, Lowden, and Norton represented Model A. O’Donnell, Angle, and Buck were the Model B candidates. The bet they made was that the value of a win, manifesting itself as behavior more akin to Michele Bachmann than Olympia Snowe, would overcome the longer odds.
In fact, they did manage a couple of wins, with Rand Paul in Kentucky, over the more moderate Trey Grayson, and with Pat Toomey over the erstwhile Republican Arlen Specter.
On balance, then, it seems that the Tea Party ideology gamble paid off.
What does this mean for 2012?
We should expect to see more of the same, particularly in the House. The Tea Party can afford to lose a few seats in the House if they replace some moderates with a few Bachmenn. Such a shift would give them less concern about ever having to compromise on cutting spending, cutting taxes, and eliminating large swaths of government.
Even in the Senate, the unbalanced payoff favors more extreme Republicans in the general election. 70% of the seats up for election are held by Democrats, so even a “throw the bums out” election would favor Republicans. Couple this with a redder sentiment today than in 1996, and it seems like an appropriate time, from a policy perspective, for relative extremists to come out of the woodwork.
This also would explain the Anybody But Romney crowd, who keeps flitting from one winger to the next. Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Tim Pawlenty to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry…the current winds are blowing in a direction that makes the gamble look worthwhile. They may seem crazy, but perhaps they are crazy like a Fox.
- Christine O’Donnell: Exhibit A for getting rid of closed primaries (cnn.com)
- Will voters turn the post-2012 balance of power upside down? (dailykos.com)
- Christine O’Donnell: I Don’t Get Why Karl Rove Keeps Bashing The Tea Party (mediaite.com)