I fell in love with the study of electoral politics because of its human element. The personalities of politicians, the passion of activists supporting charismatic candidates who represented causes that inspired them, and the often base instincts that helped activate citizens’ engagement in campaigns all are what drove me to graduate school and to want to better understand — and help students better understand — the elections at the heart and soul of our representative democracy.
Yet, in the hyperpolarized and increasingly formulaic general election politics of contemporary America much of that human element seems lost. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck make clear in their new book on the 2012 elections, “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” factors such as demography, economic performance, and political money that are disconnected from human foibles and strategic decisions drive most of what determines the winners and losers of general elections. Mattering much more than an eye-catching ad, a “47 percent” video, or a smart decision to make a campaign appearance in a swing city, the dynamics of contemporary general election politics are driven by quantifiable factors that are set before a campaign ever begins.
Still, there’s a place in American politics where the human element is alive and well. That is within the party primaries that are now the elections that matter most in determining who will be our elected officials in so many electoral settings, particularly where one party dominates.
And political scientists — numbed by running statistical models where they know what the results will be before the computer spits them out — are increasingly turned on to party primaries, traditionally ignored in the scholarly study of politics, as the place where some of the most consequential political activity is happening. Sides and Vavreck make clear that the 2012 GOP primary was decidedly more unpredictable in its ultimate outcome than was the general election. While Romney had advantages worth recognizing from the beginning, candidate personalities, voters’ religious-based biases, and innovation in campaign financing produced a level of volatility in the race for the nomination that kept all observers on edge. Similar dynamics, especially human decisions that led to strategic blunders by the Clinton campaign, were at work on the Democratic side in 2008.
Looking ahead to the coming election cycle in Arkansas, we can confidently estimate down to a few percentage points the votes in almost every general election state House race, making all but the most closely matched races done deals. Yet, there is great mystery how the GOP races for Congress in Arkansas’s two open U.S. House Districts will play out. What is the new balance of power between the business establishment and Tea Party forces in each district? Which candidates will make personal connections with voters that can shift a small turnout race? Will outside money matter drive the races or fuel a backlash by voters?
The color and unpredictability created by the human element in party primaries have been on vibrant display around the country in recent weeks. On Nov. 5, while in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races the only question mark was the ultimate size of victory by the winners, a party primary in an Alabama special election for Congress pitted a well-funded business establishment candidate against a Tea Party favorite throwing rhetorical bombs. It was unclear until election night that the Chamber of Commerce’s engagement in the race had helped save the establishment candidate, Bradley Byrne. Just last week, the Louisiana political establishment was stunned in a special election for Congress won by a candidate who ran as an “outsider” and relied heavily upon the public support of “Duck Dynasty,” of reality show fame.
For weeks now, the 2014 election cycle’s greatest entertainment has been produced in Wyoming where Liz Cheney has gone “home” to challenge veteran U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi in a GOP primary. Cheney’s candidacy, something of a vicarious one for her parents, Dick and Lynne Cheney, has created chaos and much conversation in the small, overwhelmingly Republican state. It has created similar chaos and conversation in the Cheney family in which, after the events of the last several days where Liz Cheney emphatically noted her opposition to same-sex marriages like that of her sister Mary, the family gathering for Thanksgiving Dinner has been canceled.
And, of course, in the oddest political story of the week, Arkansas state Treasurer candidate Dennis Milligan tried to push state Rep. Duncan Baird from the race by threatening to release videotapes of a late night trip to the state Capitol by Baird, other legislators, and two women during “negotiations” at Krispy Kreme taped by Baird. The bizarre Milligan/Baird back and forth represents not just a comically personal brouhaha for an office that shouldn’t exist but a battle between the “Old Guard” and “New Guard” factions in Arkansas Republican politics that may tell us where the newly advantaged party is heading.
Party primaries are where American politics remains alive because it is where the human element — inspiring, conniving, strategic, and downright wacky — remains on full display.