Blog post

Boosting extremists is a dangerous game

Placeholder while loading article actions

In a series of primaries this year, the Democrats appear to be trying to Todd Akin the Republicans. Todd Akin? He was the very conservative candidate for a Senate seat in Missouri in 2012, which Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill boosted in the Republican primary by running ads slamming him for being too conservative. The strategy was simple: Republican voters would reflexively support anyone labeled as a conservative extremist, but that candidate would then be easier to defeat in the general election. Democrats have used a version of that strategy this year in contests, including a Senate primary in Colorado and gubernatorial primaries in Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania. So what can we say about it? For one thing, be careful when buying the hype. Yes, ads can shift votes in primaries – much more easily than in general elections. But that’s exactly the kind of thing that pundits tend to overemphasize when interpreting elections. The campaign professionals behind this type of publicity can give reporters winking denials while informally backing off to claim credit for their intelligence and skill, and one of the things that election analysts and pundits in general tend to respect. is intelligence. That’s not to say that stuff like this never has real effects. But be careful.

On the other hand, note that all this is at the level of party agents. At the voter level, things may work differently. In the recent Georgia primaries, for example, Democratic voters who backed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger apparently did so because they thought those Republicans would be better off if elected. as their opponents supporting Donald Trump, not as a plot to elect. Democrats to these offices. That said, as long as the campaign is honest – that is, as long as the candidates accused of being extremely conservative are actually extremely conservative – I don’t think anything unethical is going on. here. What Democrats are trying to do is exploit the preference for extremism among Republicans which in other ways can be very damaging to Democrats. It’s ethically kosher. Whether that’s wise or not is another question. After all, if the presumed weak candidates in the general election end up winning, then the strategy will backfire. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal asks: “After all, how seriously does the party take its own argument that American democracy itself is under threat from Republicans as they encourage some of the most conspiratorial and Holocaust deniers? radicals for naked political purposes?

It’s a good question. But it goes both ways. After all, the reason Democrats and many others believe democracy is in jeopardy isn’t because the entire Republican Party is made up of fringe authoritarians. This is because most of the party is unwilling to take the fringe, and therefore Republican majorities in Congress and in state houses are, given where we are, a threat to democracy. Even if those elected look more like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and less like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn. If that’s true, then it’s hard to blame Democrats for hoping the least bad Republican gets nominated or hoping the least eligible Republican gets nominated; the real blame (as Kraushaar puts it) lies with the party “whose electorate is increasingly drawn to extremes and whose leaders are too risk averse” to do anything about it. The bigger problem, however, is that too many party players — especially in the Republican-aligned media — are pushing Republican voters to move further and further to the fringe. They will falsely claim, for example, that many, if not most, Republican politicians are sold-out RINOs (Republicans in name only). In the real world, partisan polarization at the political level is very strong, the least conservative Republicans in Congress are more conservative than the least liberal Democrats, and the main reason why conservatives don’t always get what they want is that the US system has a strong status quo bias that is hard to beat. Oh, and because Republicans have rarely won enough elections to have a unified government. Not because Republican politicians constantly betray them. And that’s exactly why Democratic campaign workers think that if they can establish that (say) a piece of Moss is the most extreme conservative in a Republican primary, then that piece of Moss will get a lot of votes. And as long as that is the case, Democrats will be left with only hard choices – and democracy could well be in jeopardy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion