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Poison Penn

One fact that has grown increasingly clear over the last two years is that the Democratic Party dodged a bullet by not nominating or electing a presidential candidate whose chief political adviser is Mark Penn. In today's Washington Post op-ed, Penn once again displays the vast and puzzling disparity between his enormous compensation and minuscule understanding of American politics.

The theme of Penn's op-ed is that the parties are abandoning the center, and it's likely that a third party -- presumably occupying the vast ideological gulf between Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson -- will emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans. Penn argues that the two-party system is the artifact of archaic technology:

While the Constitution established three branches of government, the system of political parties grew up outside of that, securing itself through what were at first formidable local infrastructures and later with skillful redistricting, ballot-access laws and contribution limits that worked to preserve the status quo.

What's missing from this explanation is the structure of the political system itself, where the combination of first-past-the-post voting and the electoral college makes third-party campaigns extraordinarily difficult. Under the right conditions, a third-party challenger might have a chance once in a while, but over time the structural forces favoring the two-party system will invariably reassert themselves. This is political science 101 stuff.

Penn asserts that rising "independent" self-identification proves the desire for a third party, or at least decreasing partisan loyalty:

In the 1940s, this really was a red or blue country, with about 85 percent of voters identifying as Republican or Democratic. Today, about 40 percent of Americans are political nomads, wandering from party to party in search of a permanent home. They peer at more than 100 varieties of coffee drinks at Starbucks and wonder why they have only two bipolar choices in politics.

In fact, pollsters and public opinion experts -- a group that apparently excludes Penn -- understand that independent self-identification largely reflects a desire not to be seen as a closed-minded, automatic vote. It does not, however, reflect actual voting independence. Most self-identified independents are at least as partisan in their voting behavior as self-identified Democrats or Republicans. It's largely a class phenomenon, with wealthier and more educated voters being more likely to call themselves independent, but not more likely to go astray in the voting both. The rise of independent self-identification has little to do with voters moving toward the center or the parties moving toward the extremes. Plenty of those self-identified Democrats in the 1950s voted for Ike.

And finally, Penn asserts that this vast ignored center has left-leaning social views and right-leaning economic views:

There is also a structural problem -- socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left. It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.

Of course, these are Penn's own views. There's no evidence that they constitute a vast, ignored center. If you look closely at ideological fissures within the electorate -- Pew's "Beyond Red and Blue" survey does this very deeply -- it's clear that the far larger cohort is the opposite of Penn: pro-government social conservatives. That's actually the cohort that's being ignored, both by the Democrats, who are more socially liberal than their base, and the Republicans, who are far more economically conservative. The parties are more responsive to their elites, who lean more socially liberal and economically conservative than the voters. But, of course, since elites also produce the political commentary, you get a constant stream of journalism and punditry asserting that there's a vast ignored middle of social liberals/economic conservatives when the truth is the opposite. (To be clear: my own social views sit far to the left of the center of public opinion, but a bit more conservative than the median Democrat in Congress.)

In any case, Penn's whole career is basically a long string of massaging, manipulating, or ignoring the data in order to produce the conclusion that his own preferences are popular. It's a very, very good thing that he isn't in the West Wing right now.