About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« That Was Subtle, John | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | An Ames Footnote »

The Billionaire's Dementia

It is probably the case that, at least at this point, a Bloomberg candidacy in itself does not deserve the attention I have been giving it. However, I have found my time thinking about it worthwhile because it elucidates some key features of our two party system, many of which are rarely noted because they are constants. It is not hard to notice something when it disappears and comes back again. But if something is always there, you can find yourself taking it for granted. And when you take something for granted, it is easy to misunderstand it.

When it comes to the two parties, its permanence makes it easy for us to fail to appreciate its deep roots in the American system, and we might start deluding ourselves that a little focus, effort, good faith, and - of course - cold, hard cash could break through it. We might call this the billionaire's dementia. Ross Perot developed it 15 years ago, and Michael Bloomberg looks like he's about to catch it, too.

Late last month, he appeared on CNN and made some sly statements about whether he would run for President. Reported The Politico's David Kuhn:

Michael Bloomberg's appearance on CNN Tuesday was ostensibly to detail his announcement that all 13,000 New York City taxis will be hybrids in five years.

When the topic - inevitably - shifted to his possible third-party candidacy for the White House, Bloomberg waved off the idea.

But then he added: "There's nothing magical about two," referring to the typical number of nominees in the general election.

There's nothing magical about two?

Yes there is!

Well, it is not magic per se. However, the fact that we have only two major parties - not to mention only two viable nominees per election - is a caused phenomenon, and the cause is the structure of our electoral system.

This is the argument of Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who, in his 1951 work, The Political Parties, offered what has since come to be called Duverger's Law. Essentially, Duverger's Law states that the number of major parties is dependent upon the voting system. Our system is what might be called a single member district plurality system. That is, one representative represents a given geographical district after he or she has acquired a plurality of that district's votes.

Duverger argues:

The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated. Let us assume an election district in which 100,000 voters with moderate views are opposed by 80,000 communist voters. If the moderates are divided into two parties, the communist candidate may well win the election; should one of his opponents receive more than 20,000 votes, the other will be left with less than 80,000, thereby insuring the election of the communist. In the following election, the two parties with moderate views will naturally tend to unite. Should they fail to do so, the weaker party would gradually be eliminated as a dual consequence of "under-representation" and "polarization."

In other words, over time three parties will merge into two. The two parties that are ideologically similar recognize that they will be better off by unifying so as to oppose the third more efficiently. Consider the election of 1912. The Republicans were split between Roosevelt and Taft. As a consequence, Wilson won. The Taft and TR factions gained nothing at all, despite the fact that each of them carried more than 20% of the vote. Wilson won everything despite the fact that he only carried about 40% of the vote. Thus, the Taft and TR factions had an incentive to resolve their differences in advance of the next election, which they essentially did (most Bull Moosers returned to the GOP fold after TR - who recognized that a third party would again swing the election to Wilson - refused the nomination). Sure, there were divergences of opinion between them. However, both sides recognized that if they compromised with each other, they could win, and each side could get a little something. If they did not compromise, they would lose and get nothing.

In addition to this process is a phenomenon that Duverger calls "under-representation and polarization." Under-representation is what happens when you win more votes in the election than you eventually win seats in government. If you are over-represented, you have more seats than you do votes. He argues that the weakest-performing party always tends to be the most under-represented. Duverger asserts that voters are aware of this phenomenon, apprehending that a vote for the third party is literally a wasted vote. Thus, they will be less likely to support the third party even if it best reflects their issue preferences. Duverger calls this "polarization."

Duverger offers this metaphor:

The exact role of the electoral system seems, in the last analysis, to be that of an accelerator or that of a brake. An election by a majority vote on a single ballot has a dual effect: first, it poses an obstacle to the appearance of a new party, although this obstacle is not insurmountable (the role of a brake); secondly, it tends to eliminate the weakest party (or parties) if there are more than two (the role of an accelerator).

There are exceptions to Duverger's Law. Most of them involve polities with strong divergences between sections. They can support third parties because the differences between the parties are so great. Our polity, at least at this point, really lacks such a divisive sectionalism. In the past, sectional divisions have induced the presence of three significant parties at once. But these never last - as one party is either subsumed by one of the major parties (e.g. the Populist Party), both of the major parties (e.g. the Progressive Party), or is replaced by the new party (e.g. the Whig Party).

What does this logic imply for Bloomberg? It might indeed be possible for a one-off "non-party" candidate to purchase entry to the White House. Duverger's Law does not necessarily preclude the possibility. The main thrust of Duverger's argument is not about one-off candidates, but about parties over time. Obviously, the GOP and the Democrats are not going to join forces to defeat Bloomberg.

Nevertheless, it is very likely the case that Bloomberg will suffer from the problem of under-representation/polarization. It is indeed true that voters are skeptical about wasting their votes on third party candidates, and they thus will be skeptical about voting for Bloomberg even if they agree with him. The two major parties will probably be able to exploit that to great effect - in both hard ways (e.g. advertising and mailers) and soft ways (e.g. Republican and Democratic votes convincing their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. not to "waste" their votes). This aspect of Duverger's Law should damage even a one-off third party candidate like Bloomberg.

There is another way Duverger's Law might hurt Bloomberg. Recall what I argued last week. A three way race in which Bloomberg does well will almost assuredly be decided by the House of Representatives, which is exclusively Republican and Democratic. So here we might say that Duverger's Law, even if its effect is weakened by the one-off nature of a Bloomberg candidacy, will still damage him because it is why there are only two parties in the House, where a three-way contest will almost assuredly be decided.

So indeed, there is something "magical about two."

There are other problems for Bloomberg that stem from the fact that there is no serious third party that he may co-opt. The absence of a third party implies that Bloomberg has no natural talent base from which he can draw. There are literally tens of thousands of Republican and Democratic activists all across the nation who are ready, willing, and able to do the work of their parties next year. I am talking about both hard and soft voter mobilization - from sophisticated GOTV tactics like the Republicans' "72 Hour Program," to the true believers who remind sympathetic coworkers to be sure to vote on the way home. Some of them get paid, most of them do not; taken together, they are a low-cost, socially integrated labor force that is highly motivated and exceedingly loyal. Bloomberg has no such labor force.

This is a major problem for him. Democracy is one big collective action dilemma. That is, the benefits that people acquire from voting are outweighed by the costs they suffer from voting. So, how do you get people to vote? There are multiple ways, but one important way is the political party. The parties mobilize voters. That is, they induce them to vote. Bloomberg - as a "no party" candidate - will have to find another way solve the collective action dilemma that he faces.

All in all, parties are useful entities for politicians. This is why they continue to associate with them! Our system is designed in a way that induces two - not three, not four, not twelve - major parties. Bloomberg seems to want electoral victory without the aid of a political party, and seems to be prepared to spend his way to that goal. Can he? Does he have enough resources to get around under-representation/polarization, around the bias he would face in the House, around a massive collective action dilemma? I doubt it.

Under what conditions might a Bloomberg candidacy be successful? I would say that to stand a chance of victory, Bloomberg needs a breakdown of our two party system. By this I do not mean the kind of breakdown where moderate voters grow tied of the manner in which our politics is conducted, as happened in 1992. The two parties are historically very capable of absorbing such disaffected voters - as evidenced by the fact that, ultimately, it was the Democrats (in 1992) and then the Republicans (in 1994) who benefited from this public frustration.

What I mean is that a sizeable portion of the electorate must begin to believe that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats represents their views on an ontological level. This is when there are typically breakthroughs for a third-party candidate in the Electoral College. This is what happened in 1892, 1948, and 1968. Even 1912 featured a split of similar proportions; it just happened not to have been strictly regional. These were all elections with three-way divisions induced by the fact that large groups of voters did not find either party representing them on their most salient beliefs about politics.

Without such a breakdown, what you have is a situation in which almost all voters - while not being full-blown partisans - find themselves comfortably represented by one of the parties, or even both of them. They might not like either of the parties all that much, but the parties generally do not take issue positions that alienate them. So, why should they vote for Bloomberg? He would offer three angles in a candidacy: (a) Side with the GOP on certain fiscal issues; (b) Side with the Democrats on certain social issues; (c) Emphasize managerial competence. This might appeal to a lot of voters; however, if they apprehend that there is no way he could win, thanks to an expectation of under-representation in both the Electoral College and the House, they will not vote for him. Even though he might be a good fit for many voters, they will not want to waste their votes, and they will find another candidate sufficiently close to their issue preferences with a chance of success.

Ultimately, that is Bloomberg's problem. His candidacy would be a candidacy of dividing and conquering: take the best of the Republican Party's ideas and the best of the Democratic Party's ideas, and pick off that middle 33% of the electorate. That would be a great strategy - except that voters (correctly) sense that third party candidates who try to do that never win. Being rational agents, they choose not to waste their votes; thus, they vote with one of the two major parties, even if the third fella is the best fit for them. What Bloomberg needs is what he will not find - a large bloc of voters (preferably located near one another) who feel that, unless Bloomberg wins, they will get nothing out of the election. He needs a set of people who think, "Bloomberg or Bust." In other words, he needs a breakdown in the two party system. Voter frustration over that system is just not enough.

-Jay Cost