Thursday, July 30, 2009

Utah Is Both Less and More Republican Than You Think

It was reported on KNRS Radio this morning that the voter demographic in Utah is markedly different than the common perception. It turns out that Republicans are not the largest bloc of voters in Utah—at least per the results of the 2008 general election.

Political Parties In Utah
Utah recognizes four political parties: Republican, Democrat, Constitution, and Libertarian. There are more political parties in Utah, but as explained here, for a party to maintain its state recognized status “an organization must participate in the general election and one or more of its candidates must receive a total vote equal to at least 2% of the total vote cast for all candidates for the U. S. House of Representatives.”

Anyone can start a political party in Utah by getting 2,000 registered Utah voters to sign “a petition seeking registered party status.” But there is a window of opportunity. The petition must be started sometime after the statewide canvass of the regular general election” (i.e. the date the election board certifies the election) and be turned in “before the general election for which it is seeking party status.” If a party fails to achieve the 2% margin in a general election, it can re-register by again completing the petitioning process.

‘Independents’ Day
Now for the interesting stuff: the party affiliation of those that voted in the last general election. KNRS says its numbers came from the Lt. Governor’s office. If Republicans weren’t the biggest voting bloc, who was?
  • The grand prize winners are the independent and unaffiliated voters, coming in at a whopping 55.4 percent.
  • Only 35.9 percent of those that voted were registered Republicans. That’s a little over a third.
  • A paltry 8 percent of the voters were registered Democrats, although, there were localized pockets where the percentage of registered Democrats was much higher.
  • Fewer than one percent of voters were registered with the Constitution or Libertarian Parties.
What gives here? Isn’t Utah the most heavily Republican state in the nation? If there is this huge bloc of independent voters in Utah, why don’t we see anyone but Republicans and a smattering of Democrats winning political office in the state?

Democrats and Republicans Only, Please
The stark reality is that with the exception of occasional (and sometimes spectacular) flukes, only candidates belonging to one of the major political parties are viable. Why is this the case? Some of the reasons include:
  • People register with a political party because they share enough common cause to form a coalition. This gives them power over those that have no coalition. Although the block of independent voters is huge, they have diverse interests. There is not enough common ground among them to coalesce into a coherent political philosophy or power.
  • Political parties provide marketing structure. This includes fundraising, helpful colleagues, an ideology, and a concerted message system. Unaffiliated voters, by definition, lack such structure.
  • The major political parties work very hard to maintain their duopoly hold on political power. They have succeeded in stifling competition and in creating significant barriers to entry into the political market. It may not be difficult to register a party in Utah, but go ahead and try to develop the kind of strength needed to peel away a significant segment of voters and you’ll see what I mean about market barriers.
  • Affiliation with a strong national party is a big marketing plus. In the categories of common products where branding has been successful, the vast majority of us choose among the major brands and ignore the others, even if other products have the possibility of superior value. It works that way for the major political parties as well.
  • To appeal to enough voters to win, the major political parties provide a sort of winnowing process that tends to eliminate the most extreme candidates, especially in higher level contests. Detractors will say that G.W. Bush was a radical right winger and that Barack Obama is a radical left winger, but an honest appraisal of our presidents over the past century will show that they have mostly turned out to be closer to the middle than to the left or right. This reduces voter choice, but that’s not always bad, since many voters—like shoppers—tune out when there are too many choices available.
How the Game Is Played
Although the analogy isn’t perfect, our major political parties sort of work like the NFL, which has two major conferences: the AFC and NFC. The final annual contest is between the winners of the playoffs in the two conferences. Our primary and general elections work something like this. And Americans just eat it up. Despite many noncompetitive games over the years, huge numbers of Americans are drawn to celebrate the Super Bowl each year. While there are many died in the wool fans, most of these celebrants are ‘unaffiliated,’ as it were.

The NFL has been enormously successful in creating barriers to entry into the professional football market. Other leagues have been tried over the years, but they always eventually fizzle. Still, most Americans are relatively satisfied with the situation, even if they aren’t serious fans. The sentiment is similar with our political system. Interestingly, both of these systems are increasingly celebrity centric. But one is just a game, while the other has actual impact on the lives of people near and far.

The Effects of a Closed System
Our nearly exclusive two-party political system provides the political class significant power in steering the public and in getting the public to focus on what the politicos desire. It allows politicians to create crises and then craft ‘solutions’ to them; thus, allowing politicians to play the role of hero. This political duopoly engenders political celebrities that attract fawning fans and that become more important as personalities than their accomplishments should warrant.

The trick that the political parties are learning is how to take advantage of the huge muddling mass of independent voters. Since this group is notoriously difficult to nail down, the parties know that even temporary marketing gimmicks can produce success. Sometimes the unwieldy independents refuse to play along, but it is often possible to get just enough of them to support a candidate or a cause long enough to score a win.

Like it or not, the pathway to political success in the U.S. is through the major political parties. They set the agenda. Political success outside of one of these parties (except in some local nonpartisan elections) is very difficult to come by. Third parties, and even independent voters can occasionally pull the parties slightly this way or that, but they are largely impotent politically.

No third party is arising to harness the large bloc of independent voters because of the lack of coherency among these voters. Simply disliking the two major parties is insufficient grounds for joining political forces, because the situation isn’t yet so bad that unaffiliated voters are willing to exchange the devil they know for the devil they don’t know.

Despite any rhetoric otherwise, if you want to significantly impact American politics today, you will have to do it through the major political parties. There simply are no other alternatives at present, and the prospects for such alternatives developing are bleak.

What This Means In Utah
Upon initial consideration it seems odd that a party to which a little over a third of actual Utah voters belong wins the vast majority of political contests in the state. But it seems even odder that a party to which fewer than a twelfth of actual Utah voters belong is able to win any political positions at all.

The answer to this puzzle is that the mass of voters without convictions as strong as their party affiliated neighbors tends to vote somewhat similarly to those neighbors. So it works more (but not exactly) like the state is about 81% Republican and 18% Democratic. (35.9 / (35.9 + 8) and 8 / (35.9 + 8) respectively, leaving a percent for the third parties.) Democrats are able to win in the few regions where their numbers are relatively high.

Independent and Free or Willingly Controlled?
Registering as an independent allows one to feel elevated above the scrabble of party politics and removes any sense of responsibility to get involved at the caucus and convention levels. But it essentially leaves one a sheep that unavoidably benefits one major party or the other.

I’m not saying that I like this system. I’m just saying that this is the way it in reality works. Changing it would be a nearly insurmountable task, and I have seen no feasible plan that would have any hope of accomplishing it. Still, I must admit that it seems a little hollow to suggest that the only practical way to change the current system is to work within it. The dilemma that has long perplexed me is how one can effectively work within the system without morphing into the same kind of creature he is seeking to destroy—without becoming one of THEM.

10 comments:

d.eris said...

This is an impressive post, considering many different sides of a difficult question many among us (i.e. Republicans and Democrats) would rather not countenance. The majority of voters in Utah are registered as unaffiliated or with third parties, yet the Republicans and Democrats together control 99% of elected offices. The only way to change this system is to work outside of it.

Reach Upward said...

I'd be interested in your ideas about how to go about doing that.

RD said...

Some sort of Proportional voting system would be a good reform. though I support such a thing would only happen on a cold day in hell.

Michael and Jessica said...

Wow! I'm just starting as a blogger and I just hope my posts can be half as smart as yours. This is my first time visiting your blog. Check mine out: http://utahsrepresentatives.wordpress.com/
It's focused on Utah's representatives in Washington.

Reach Upward said...

The proportional voting system is very interesting, but it has inherent problems that makes it difficult to sell to people.

Some of the challenges include lack of clarity and transferrance of significant power to minor viewpoints. Some objective studies suggest that this problem is far more pronounced than in winner-take-all systems.

I'm not saying that proportional voting is without merit. But it is no panacea. I think most people would find it difficult to give up the current system for another system that simply has different kinds of problems. And that makes it difficult to sell.

d.eris said...

Reach, I've got a few, I'm working on a kind of summary post bringing together a number of ideas on the possibilities of independent organizing I've been trying to work through recently. I'll send you the link.

Reach Upward said...

The thoughts on your link are very interesting. Many of the same thoughts have passed through my head from time to time.

While I would be pleased to be proven wrong, I remain unconvinced that there is yet sufficient philosophical cohesion or passion to harness the potential power of the mass of independent voters.

Of course, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to have something in place if the displeasure with the political class rises to that level.

d.eris said...

It would indeed be difficult to harness the mass of independent voters (they span the political spectrum from left to right), but a mass movement might not be necessary to achieve real results. imo, local and state level organizing are key to effecting political change in the direction of greater political representation in government. Independents in Connecticut have the right idea, if you ask me. And here are the two recent posts I mentioned above: Failures of the Two-Party System, and On the Independence of Independents.

Reach Upward said...

I agree that local- and state-level organizing is the key to building something useful.

One part of me feels that it would be wonderful to have a dynamic mix of many small parties so that people of various stripe could find something that more closely suits their political understanding. I think we'd see a lot less citizen apathy.

On the other hand, I wonder how well this type of system could challenge the hegemony of the D and R parties. They would have to come together in some kind of coalition. But that coalition would necessarily have to be based on a very small number of high level points of agreement.

I think that's how our government was intended to function. Having few points of agreement would result in more limited government, since legislation could only be passed on those few issues where very broad agreement exists. That would be far better than the present bastardization of democracy, where 50.1% of legislators selected from establishment parties that represent a decreasing percentage of the population can force anything they want down our throats.

But the question remains as to whether a loose coalition of independent parties can break the D&R duopoly.

d.eris said...

Indeed, that's the question, and the only way to find out is to do it.