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By Jay Cost

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Should We Forget the Second Tier?

If you are as I am, you find yourself annoyed by the unwieldy size of the presidential debates. If so, you might be interested to know that there are two parties we may blame - beyond, of course, the media and its ridiculously liberal policy on who is allowed to participate.

We may also blame Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. It is those two who have induced most of the second and third tier candidates to participate in this process (except a few - Gravel, Kucinich, Paul, Tancredo - who do not seem to be "in it to win it"). They serve as the everlasting inspiration for the second tier challengers - just as Harry S. Truman has been the hope of every seemingly hopeless general election candidate since 1948. Neither Carter nor Clinton held the status of frontrunner when their respective campaigns began. Neither was the party's presumptive nominee, nor the choice of the party elites. Both ran what amounted to insurgent campaigns - and managed to win. It is their successes that have inspired this multitude of would-be chief executives whose bids are long shots.

Unfortunately for these candidates, long shot is a bit too charitable of an estimate. This year is not the kind of year that we should expect an insurgent, underdog candidate to "steal" the nomination. Both Carter and Clinton won the Democratic nomination in years when there were no top-tier candidates in the race. This year, there are - by my count - seven top-tier candidates. This makes the path to nomination for these second-tier candidates virtually impossible.

An important fact here is that the two primary electorates are not characterized by a diversity of issue positions on either side. Republican primary voters are surprisingly uniform in their policy preferences. Democratic primary voters are as well. This is one reason why there is never very much disagreement at any of these debates. The primary electorates themselves are essentially in agreement. Thus, we can expect vote-maximizing candidates essentially to agree as they debate. Pundits often bemoan this fact, but they should not. It is actually a good thing that the nation's political parties are not rent by existential divisions.

Uniformity of policy preferences makes breaking through in a year like this very difficult. Assume that the goal of each voter is to get somebody in the White House who reflects his or her views on policy matters as much as possible. To that end, no voter is going to waste his or her vote. This means that each voter will probably be willing to sacrifice a little ideological similitude for the sake of electoral expediency. This makes it difficult for candidates stuck in the second tier to win. When voters are so close together in terms of issue preferences, it is easy for top tier candidates to position themselves with those voters. Thus, it is very hard for second tier candidates to develop a sufficient amount of issue separation between themselves and the top tier candidates so that voters feel like they are sacrificing too much by supporting a top tier candidate.

For instance - the buzz now is that Fred Thompson is pulling Christian conservative voters into his camp. This is trouble for Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee. Both of them are probably closer fits for that voting group than Thompson. However, they are not much closer. The difference between most Christian conservative voters and Thompson is probably fairly small. Indeed, any measurable difference is not reducible to different issue positions, but rhetorical emphasis. Assume you are a conservative Christian voter. What should you do if your goal is to maximize the similarity between the final nominee and you? Should you vote your ideal preference and support somebody who seems to stand no chance of winning, or should you sacrifice that a little bit to vote for somebody still largely acceptable who seems to stand a chance of winning? Obviously, the latter is the utility-maximizing choice.

Well - you might say - if all voters started supporting Brownback or Huckabee instead of Thompson, that would change the dynamic of who is and who is not in the top tier. Indeed, it would. But the problem with that is that we have to estimate what the rational move for every voter is, given the current selection of the other voters. Sure, it would make sense for one Christian conservative Republican to jump to Huckabee or Brownback if others did. But, practically speaking, that voter must make his choice without knowledge of en masse movement to a more conservative candidate. In other words, the choice for Thompson is an equilibrium choice for this voter; given the selections of others, it is the correct, i.e. the utility-maximizing, selection.

This sort of strategic thinking is, as I said, a consequence of relative uniformity among voters and candidates. It is also due to the fact that the nomination is not doled out proportionally. If Sam Brownback gets 3% of the Republican vote, he does not get 3% of the nomination! Our presidential contest - both in its nominating and electing phases - is winner-take-all. This induces voters to make trade-offs between ideological similitude and likelihood of ultimate victory. This is similar to the process that I outlined last week when I discussed Mayor Bloomberg and Duverger's Law. Winner-take-all systems induce this kind of strategic thinking. Duverger called it under-representation and polarization. The fact that individual primaries are often not winner-take-all might diminish the forcefulness of this logic a little, but ultimately the system as a whole is winner-take-all, so we should still expect rational voters essentially to strategize in this manner.

Personally, I am surprised that so many candidates are in the top tier. Right now, our system is sustaining seven candidates. That is a lot. This might be one reason that Giuliani and McCain decided to demure from the Ames straw poll. If this number of candidates is unsustainable - why make it seem like you are the weak link? The smart move is to walk away.

Why, then, were Carter and Clinton successful? It was because their respective fields were bereft of front runners. Carter and Clinton both seemed to stand as good a chance as anybody - and so they did not have to fight concerns that votes for them would be wasted votes.

A final point. The process of who finds himself in the top-tier is decidedly un-Jeffersonian, wouldn't you say? Earlier in the week, I discussed the power to set the agenda, and argued that it is a distinct mode of power. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz described it thusly in their 1962 article, "The Two Faces of Power,"

Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing the social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A's set of preferences.

We can see something like this at play here in this nomination saga. Voters as a whole exercise the first mode of power - that is, they are the ones who decide which candidates receive the nomination. They make "the decisions." However, political elites - broadly defined to include Washington power brokers, journalists/pundits, big money donors, and activists - exercise the second mode of power. They set the agenda. In the case of the nominations for both parties, these elites choose who shall and who shall not advance to the top tier through their endorsements, their news stories, their donations, or their enthusiasm. They thus reduce the number of options for strategic voters - who rightly feel constrained to vote for candidates who are in the top tier.

What is more, in most instances, a candidate's elevation to the top tier is not entirely due to qualification for office. Of course, none of the top tier candidates are unqualified. It is just to say that what elevates you to the top tier - as opposed to keeping you in the second tier - is not your additional aptitude for the job. Rather, elevation to the top tier has been based, at least in part, upon factors that are not really germane to the chief executive position. Rudy Giuliani's handling of that dreadful day. Hillary Clinton's husband. Barack Obama's good looks and youthful vigor. John McCain's earnestness. And so on. This is what has given these candidates their additional advantages - and, let's face it, few of these qualities are really all that necessary for the presidency.

Mind you, I am not decrying this process. I have no problem with the fact that the second mode of power exists, and it does not bother me that political elites are the ones who exercise it when they select who shall and who shall not be a competitive, top tier candidate. More importantly, I am highly skeptical that another selection system that is any better could practically be implemented.

I will say that I find the media's open debate policy to be annoying, given the role they play in effectively narrowing the field. You'd think they could do us a favor and narrow it on the debate stage, too. I wish they would not be so wrapped up in that kind of posturing. Political scientists and sociologists have frequently pointed out that the exercise of the second mode of power is much more subtle. Indeed, we can see evidence of that here. Look at the pains that our media outlets take to be as inclusive as possible at the debates. It is only afterwards - when the second tier candidates get ninety seconds at the end of the 11 PM hour of post-debate coverage - that we can see the exercise of the second mode of power.

-Jay Cost