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November 22, 2013 2:38 PM Turning the Median Voter Theorem Upside Down

By Ed Kilgore

One of the hoariest of assumptions Americans tend to have about political behavior is the so-called “Median Voter Theorem,” which holds that political parties and candidates tend to hew to the ideological “center” in order to win majorities. It’s really the basis for a lot of the talk about “base” and “swing” voters and efforts made by competitors to create coalitions accommodating both.

I don’t know that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (or his ghostwriter) is particularly interested in political science, but his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in effect tries to turn the Median Voter Theorem upside down by positing that being a consistent ideologue actually tends to attract voters from outside the party base—in his case, he claims, voters who also like Barack Obama because he, too, is a consistent ideologue.

Walker’s antipathy to the Median Voter Theorem (or at least its practical “move to the center to win” implication) isn’t surprising, particularly if you assume he’s interesting in running for president. Aside from his actual record of union-baiting and benefit-cutting in Wisconsin, it’s an article of faith among the conservative activists who exert disproportionate influence on the GOP presidential nominating contest that Republicans lose elections when they stray from the maximum ideological purity consistent that political markets will bear. His bottom-line argument was intended to be transmitted directly into the lower brains of Iowa Caucusgoers, most of whom hate RINOs like sin itself.

But usually “move right to win” arguments are based on “hidden majority” theories, such as the notion that “true conservative” voters are staying at home or are insufficiently “energized” by wimpy moderates who don’t publicly chew the viscera of the Hated Liberal Enemy. Walker doesn’t go that way:

Exit polls showed that roughly one in six voters who cast their ballots for me in the June 2012 recall also planned to vote for Mr. Obama a few months later. These Obama-Walker voters constituted about 9% of the electorate.
Polls show that about 11% of the people in Wisconsin today support both me and the president. There are probably no two people in public life who are more philosophically opposite—yet more than one in 10 approve of us both.
To make a conservative comeback, Republicans need to win these Obama-Walker voters and their equivalents across the country. In the Wisconsin recall election, we mobilized conservative voters by standing up for conservative principles against enormous pressure. But we also persuaded at least some of President Obama’s supporters to support us, too.
There are independent, reform-minded voters in every state. In times of crisis, they want leadership—from either party. What I have learned is that if you step forward and offer a reform agenda that is hopeful and optimistic, they may give you a shot. More important, if you deliver, they will stick with you.
The way Republicans can win those in the middle is not by abandoning their principles. To the contrary, the courage to stand on principle is what these voters respect. The way to win the center is to lead.
That’s why those arguing that conservatives have to “moderate” their views if they want to appeal to the country are so wrong.

Now there are a lot of problems with Walker’s data comparisons here, conflating approval ratings with votes, and recall elections with off-year elections and presidential elections. I don’t really have the time right now to sort through it all, and I doubt the man or his handlers are really interested in the data anyway.

Still, the argument that there’s some sort of left-right coalition available that despises the “center” and espouses transpartisan “reforms” is the sort of thing you hear occasionally from libertarians but not from orthodox conservatives of Walker’s ilk, particularly outside the South, where the “conservative reformer” label is designed to separate serious ideologues from old-school party-switching Dixiecrats who just want to hold office.

It’ll be interesting to see if Walker stays with this pitch for a while. If he does and he runs for president, he’ll be setting himself up for the inconvenient task of consistently displaying an appeal to Obama voters, most of whom probably regard him, if they regard him at all, as a predictable hack doing the Koch Brothers’ bidding while promoting a Tea Party/Christian Right identity with “the base.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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