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Crist’s Choice and the US Party System

I often ask classes some variation of the following sentence:  “how does one become a Democrat or Republican in the United States?”

The answer, of course, is that one says one is.  There is no test.  There is no set of qualifications.  There is often just a simple public declaration and maybe sometimes something to sign.

Charlie Crist* just provided another data point to back me up:  Charlie Crist signs papers to become a Democrat. (It is always nice when reality cooperates with things I say in class).

Of course, there is a big difference between being a declared, official adherent (“member” seems to too strong a word in this context) and winning a party’s nomination, let alone an elected official with a given party affiliation.

In this case we are simply talking about his voter registration, which really doesn’t mean all that much, since it does not dictate for whom he will vote in the general election, let alone what he believes and supports.

While on the one hand we have a clearly polarized party system, we have far less disciplined parties than one might think.

Beyond that, it is interesting to note that it would seem at the moment that the increased ideological purity of the Republican Party (especially the base) means that the better bet for moderates (even moderate conservatives) is to play in the Democratic primary rather than the Republican primary.

Indeed, a lot of the choices that individual politicians make is predicated very heavily on the nomination process.  The reason many Tea Party candidates run as Republicans and not under their own label is because they know they have a better shot at a general election win via a Republican nomination than they do as a third party candidates.  This is the same reason Ron Paul ran as a Republican as long as he did rather than as Libertarian.

It is important to understand that nominations are not in the hands of party leaders, but are in the hands of the voters, and specifically in the hands of voters who tend to be more ideologically oriented than the typical party voter, let alone the median voter in a given state or district.

Crist may well be a cynic. but his choices are being driven by the structural conditions of our electoral system, especially the nomination process (the effects of which are substantially under-studied in the context of the robustness of US bipartism).

A side note, this also all relates to a post I wrote a while back:  All Republicans are RINOs (and all Democrats are DINOs).

*And yes, James Joyner already noted this story.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. arguingwithsignposts says:

    let alone the media voter in a given state or district.

    Do you mean “median” here?

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  2. @arguingwithsignposts: Indeed I do. Thanks.

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  3. Jib says:

    It is interesting how the Top 2 primary system in WA is affecting party identification. In a Top 2 system, every primary candidate for a given position goes into 1 race. Everyone votes in that race, no party registration. The top 2 vote getters then advance to the general election regardless of the party id of the 2 candidates.

    In the last primary I noticed candidates listing themselves as ‘Republican-Libertarian’, or ‘Democrat-Progressive’, not just Dem or Repub.

    We are early in this process and there are still real advantages to belonging to a party when you run. For example Dems and Repubs both had a booth at every county fair in the state with info on every candidate running. If you are a Libertarian or Socialist (we have real socialist run in WA elections, not the fake Fox News kind) you have to pay for and man your own booth. But pure party id has no clear advantage on the ballot in the primary. It will be interesting to watch how this changes the way candidates self identify.

    FWIW, CA is now a Top 2 state, Arizona rejected it this election but I expect Top 2 to spread, especially in the West where a lot of people are economically conservative and socially liberal and sometimes have a hard time finding a home in either party.

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  4. @Jib: It will be interesting to see how Top Two develops, although I am not convinced, at this time, that it actually helps third parties over the long haul, but rather has the more likely effect of allowing the over-nomination of Reps and Dems to ultimately further dominate the system. It certainly does mean that general elections are always two-candidate affairs (which is important to note, since primary electorates are quite different from general election electorates).

    The label issue that you describe is interesting–I will have to give it a look,

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  5. Jeremy R says:

    Flashback — Charlie Crist responding to the rise of the Tea Party:

    http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/2012/07/former_florida_gop_chair_says.php

    Charlie Crist apparently had become increasingly frustrated with the direction of his own party. Greer urged Crist to make better use party resources while he was running for Senate while still a Republican.

    “He told me to f– the party,” he said. “They were a bunch of crazies. And they did nothing to win elections.”

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  6. Jib says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes but maybe the ideology is signified by the second part of the label. Given the infrastructure advantage of the 2 parties (including gerrymandered districts) you will always declare dem or repub but how you will vote once in office will be determined by the second label.

    Do we care that an ideology re-creates the whole 19th century infrastructure of a party? I see the top 2 as a way to subvert the 2 party system allowing 3rd party candidates to run while using the resources of the 2 parties. We will see if that is true but I am not alone in this, the dem and repub establishment fought the top 2 bitterly for just this reason

    This year WA had a republican running for the house in the general election who supported gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, bringing home all the troops from Afghan today, not in 2014, and also believed that abortion should always be illegal even in cases of incest and rape. More and more in WA, we have to pay attention to the specifics, just the party label is not enough to tell how candidates will vote once in office.

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  7. @Jib:

    I see the top 2 as a way to subvert the 2 party system allowing 3rd party candidates to run while using the resources of the 2 parties.

    After a fashion that is what the primaries do in general, but at the expense of co-opting third party impulses into the two main parties, and hence reinforcing the two part duopoly. This is what happened with Ron Paul and what happened/is happening with the Tea Party.

    Still, I do need to do a more detailed look at WA (and CA) going forward to see how this all develops. I have a significant interest in the role played by primaries in party development, as it is a feature that is unique to the US (other countries use things called primaries, but they do not have the same systematic, institutionalized presence).

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  8. Bernieyeball says:

    The reason many Tea Party candidates run as Republicans and not under their own label is because…

    …the Tea Party is not a political party?

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  9. @Bernieyeball:

    …the Tea Party is not a political party?

    The Tea Party is a faction of the Republican Party.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The Tea Party is a faction of the Republican Party.

    Not to hear them tell it!

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  11. Bernieyeball says:

    I’ll take that as “No. The Tea Party is not a political party.”

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  12. Argon says:

    The modern GOP reminds me of the line from ‘The Blues Brothers’: We’ve got both kind of music here, Country and Western!

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  13. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    As far as I can tell, there is no Tea Party. There are a bunch of factions running around all claiming to be the REAL Tea Party: Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, plus a few hundred more splinter groups, each with its own different set of priorities, and each going off to sulk in the corner if their chosen one isn’t the candidate for a particular office. It’s the political version of one of those French bedroom farce movies. And the best gift the Democratic Party was ever given.

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  14. @CSK: Yes, but it is possible to identify a fairly clear set of candidates who have run in primaries, and many that have won seats in Congress, that form a specific party faction.

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  15. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed. But how long will that last, given the continuing fracturing of the Tea Party? If it had coalesced into a single unified movement with a clearly defined set of agreed-upon priorities, it might have had some real political clout. But it didn’t. Tea Party Patriots, for example, announced last spring that it would not, under any circumstances, support Mitt Romney if he won the nomination. And, I believe it was Nevada, in the run up to the November election, that had four different “Tea Parties,” each of which was supporting a different candidate for the same office.

    John Brunner was the Tea Party candidate for the senate in Missouri. Sarah Palin, whose fans regard her as the queen of the Tea Party, supported Sarah Steelman. We all know how that worked out for Brunner and Steelman: Todd “legitimate rape”Akin won the primary and got creamed by McCaskill.

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  16. Andy says:

    The tea party is a movement like progressives are a movement. Most progressives end up voting for Democrats though they often hold their noses doing so. Same with the tea party and the GoP. In a two-party system, there isn’t much choice.

    As for Charlie Christ, he’s a professional politician. He wants to hold office again and the independent thing didn’t work out to well for him, so what else is he going to do but join the Democrats?

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  17. @Andy:

    The tea party is a movement like progressives are a movement. Most progressives end up voting for Democrats though they often hold their noses doing so. Same with the tea party and the GoP. In a two-party system, there isn’t much choice.

    Hence my characterization of the TP as a faction of the Republican Party, as well as my point about primaries.

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  18. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Top two primaries are just a way to ensure that incumbents are re-elected (outside of redistricting). Now a challenger has to run against the incumbent twice, once in the primary and then again in the general election. IN reality, top two primaries means that a challenger needs to beat a well financed incumbent twice.

    It may work differently in California with term limits but since the Democratic Party so dominants California (much like Washington), I doubt if top two will mean much in the long run.

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  19. DRE says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The top-two primary has the potential to empower third parties in a very different way.

    The common party primary, multiple candidate general election model, in the 2 super-party context, gives 3rd parties a trivial and often perverse role. It is difficult to recruit quality candidates and generally the only time they make a difference in an election is as a spoiler, leading to the election of the major party candidate least favorable to their views. If they are unable to get a candidate into the top two in a primary with a much smaller electorate, it’s pretty unlikely that their candidate will have any positive role in the general election.

    On the other hand, in the top-two system, a 3rd party has an alternative path to growth. Instead of trying to field candidates in every race and hope for a miracle, smaller parties could work on developing a policy agenda and work primarily to further that agenda, both through advocacy and through identification of candidates normally associated with a major party that are amenable to that agenda. Get both major and minor candidates in the primary to compete for the party’s endorsement and support, at the same time as working to attract a following among the large numbers of non-partisan registered voters that exist in both California and Washington. In general elections, focus their resources on contests that are likely to make a difference for their ability to influence policy.

    In California, both the Green and Libertarian parties have the potential to have real influence, but the partisan primary and general system has limited them to purely outsider status, and created a hostility from the major party closest to their preferred policies.

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  20. @DRE: That is the argument, yes. However, the actual effect is likely to be the total crowding out of third parties from the general election ballot.

    The very real likelihood is that third parties will become even less important in CA going forward.

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  21. Jib says:

    @superdestroyer: I think your wrong on that and my evidence is how hard the parties and the incumbents fought the top 2. If it was good for both, they would have embraced it.

    However what it does mean is that all successful challenges to incumbents will come from the center, not from the wings. So instead of hard right or hard left challenger knocking out a incumbent in the primary (where a smaller, more ideological group votes) and then coasting to a gerrymandered election in the general you get challengers who run from the center, finish second and then hope to draw enough votes from the other side in the general.

    It is early in the experiment but it appears that this fear of an attack from the center is working. Although very few repubs bucked the leadership in 2011-2012, among those that did were WA repubs. In CA several incumbents on both sides made a big deal about how much they cooperate with the other party. All these people fear an attack from the middle much more than an attack from the activist wing of their party.

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  22. @Jib:

    However what it does mean is that all successful challenges to incumbents will come from the center, not from the wings. So instead of hard right or hard left challenger knocking out a incumbent in the primary (where a smaller, more ideological group votes) and then coasting to a gerrymandered election in the general you get challengers who run from the center, finish second and then hope to draw enough votes from the other side in the general.

    That’s the theory, but there is no guarantee that it works out that way. Indeed, with multiple candidate from s given party running there is absolutely no way to assure that the challenger will be from the center.

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  23. Jib says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Serious question, why does it matter if 3rd party organizations go away when they are not accomplishing much any way? If the purpose is to see policies implemented and the best way to do that is inside one of the 2 parties, do we care what they call themselves as long as the policies change?

    The repubs and dems are not really parties. They are center-right / center-left coalitions. And even that is not set in stone as both have radically changed their positions over the decades. Ideologically they are not the parties they once were and they will not be the same parties in the future. Those changes are brought about by groups that in other democracies would be independent parties but in the US are factions of the 2 main coalitions. What is that a problem?

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  24. @Jib: There is a lot to be said on this, but I will limit my response to saying that it is important to understand how various institutional structures influence party behavior. Top two, despite being sold as good for third parties and/or for moderates, is likely to more heavily favor the Reps and Dems (and will likely turn a number of districts into RvR or DvD districts in the second round). All of this deepens the duopoly for good or ill.

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  25. Jib says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Thanks, I understand its too much to go into in comments on a blog, If you have a reading list / links on this I would be interested in that. I am a big fan of top 2 but I could be be wrong about it (happens all the time). It is one big experiment and I am enjoying watching it play out.

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  26. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    There will only be competitive D Vs D or fewer R vs R in open seats or during redistricting such as Howard Berman versus Brad Sherman. Once an incumbent D is in office, they will probably never face a serious opponent again except in a swing district. However, given the changing demographics of California, there will be fewer swing districts in the future.

    A few Republicans thought that top two primaries would help them but, of course, they were wrong and the top two has actually help the Democrats.

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  27. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Top two, despite being sold as good for third parties and/or for moderates, is likely to more heavily favor the Reps and Dems (and will likely turn a number of districts into RvR or DvD districts in the second round). All of this deepens the duopoly for good or ill.

    This ties into the issue of gerrymandering districts. The more I have thought about it — and I initially was excited about the idea of top two — the more I’ve come to realize that it’s, at best, a band-aid on that bigger issue. The promise is that it will somehow weaken the party machine — by allowing an insurgent candidate from their own party — yet I have not seen any proof of this in the states where it’s been implemented (like California). As long as district lines are drawn to preserve a status quo “balance of power” between two parties then there’s little reason to believe that either party is going to suffer under the current system.

    @SLT, as a bit of an aside, when the topic of competitive districts came up after the election, did that model take into account districts where there were to members of the same party running against each other? Or was competitiveness solely looked at in terms of inter-party races?

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  28. Jib says:

    @mattb:

    yet I have not seen any proof of this in the states where it’s been implemented (like California).

    Its too early to tell. Politics is a conservative game and this was the first election under top 2 for CA. They ran their campaigns like they always have not knowing how to do it different. WA has ran 3 elections this way and in the last one, we saw candidates moving to the center in general and some very different types of candidates but so far only repub vs dem in the general election.

    WA has a tradition of moderate pols from both parties. It had an open primary system with no political party registration and it was thought the open primary was responsible for the moderate pols. So the parties killed it through the courts and tried to force more partisan primaries. The result was an initiative that created the top 2 primary. The purpose is to create moderates, not 3rd parties.

    I have to admit I dont care about 3rd parties. I care about the policies not the little letter that follows the candidates name. I think it is a mistake to just look at which party the elected person caucuses with and say ‘nothing has changed’. Look at the type of dem or repub they are. One thing is clear, the Tea Party has had much less influence in WA than elsewhere. I expect you will see the same thing in CA.

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  29. DRE says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The very real likelihood is that third parties will become even less important in CA going forward.

    It’s true that it will remove the only importance they have had in the past, but that is the purely perverse effect they can have in a competitive general election. There is a chance for them to have a positive effect in the top two system, but virtually none in the traditional system. Top two will mean that they either develop a useful role to replace the nuisance role, or they lose all relevance. I would prefer the first, but the second would be a benefit as well.

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  30. @DRE: I would find this a more compelling argument if we were talking about a system that limited parties to one candidate each. Top two distorts competition by allowing multiple candidates from the same party.

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  31. DRE says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Top two, despite being sold as good for third parties and/or for moderates, is likely to more heavily favor the Reps and Dems (and will likely turn a number of districts into RvR or DvD districts in the second round). All of this deepens the duopoly for good or ill.

    Top two was opposed by all parties in California, including Dems and Reps. I believe that the minor parties should favor it, but there is a good reason for the major parties to oppose it. It allows non-partisan challenges that are all but impossible in the traditional system. Virtually all local elections in California have always used a top two system, and the parties are all but irrelevant in those elections.

    Some of the more interesting contests for Congress this year included candidates who ran away from the party labels. The best example is probably the 33rd District where Henry Waxman faced a serious challenge from Bill Bloomfield who ran with no party identification and captured 46% of the vote. He would never have made it to the General election if he had to run in a party primary to get there.

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  32. DRE says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Top two distorts competition by allowing multiple candidates from the same party.

    The most common situations that would give two candidates from the same party would have one candidate from that party running against token opposition in the traditional system (see Sherman vs Berman instead of Sherman vs random hopeless candidates). I’ll grant you that it’s possible to have a situation with 2 members of one party getting into the top two from a highly fragmented primary and that is a problem, but it is a problem that is most likely to harm one of the two major parties.

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