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Nothing can do more to promote television-free family dinners than the flood of political commercials currently running on network affiliates across the nation. Negative ads, vague promises, and ad hominem attacks provide the television character to larger campaign themes, which are orchestrated by political consultants in an effort to capture enough votes for their candidate.
With an emphasis on broad themes over substance, television communications tend to be ambiguous; designed not to offend potential viewers with the candidate’s own controversial positions, while highlighting those of an opponent. Conversely, direct mail communications and grassroots events and politicking are used to engage a candidate’s political base with specific initiatives he will pursue and common values for which he will fight. The base also provides logistical support to candidates, like planting signs, making phone calls, and leading “get out the vote” efforts. The base is often tied to the state or county’s political party, but often can owe allegiance to the candidate himself, particularly in gubernatorial contests.
The information directed at the base often differs markedly from communications with marginal voters or general audiences. Such distinctions in message are disingenuous, to a certain degree, but understandable given the underlying objective of the campaign. But, for policy analysts, it is often difficult to determine which set of communications to believe. If elected, will the candidate ingratiate himself to his base, or moderate his views to represent better the views of his broader constituency?
Empirical investigations into the behavior of representative governments offer a few suggestions. First, it is necessary to assume that political participants seek to maximize utility, for themselves and their party. Which is to say that politicians pursue ends that will earn the admiration of contemporaries and posterity, increase their personal wealth, and fulfill ideological objectives. Of course, the greatest constraint on the maximization of all of these goods is the electoral process itself. The threat of losing an election is the greatest moderating force in politics for individuals and parties alike.
Some analysts and economists suggest that majorities of 52 percent or less will lead the incumbent party or politician to pursue policies, that will increase popularity irrespective of their ideological bent. This means that when the majority in the 435-member House of Representatives is 226 or fewer – as it is during the 107th Congress – the incumbent party will focus more on public sentiment than ideology. Similarly, incumbent politicians will take stands on issues that are more consonant with the average voter when their popularity dips below 50 percent.
So, with both the House and Senate evenly divided, both before and after this November’s election, there is little chance that policies pursued by the eventual majority will be highly motivated by ideology. But the victors’ attempt to pursue policies to increase popularity will largely be macroeconomic in nature, since the most significant proxy for popularity is macroeconomic health as measured by unemployment, the consumer price index, and asset prices, particularly the health of the stock market.
Yet the best ways to stimulate economic activity are the subject of considerable debate, so even when trying to maximize popularity, parties do so through an ideological lens. And, ironically, very often the government, although an endogenous variable in economic models, does not play a role during economic expansions, allowing incumbents to take credit for nothing.
This year’s midterm elections are interesting from a political perspective because both houses are up for grabs, but less intriguing from a policy perspective because of the tepid initiatives that are likely to come as a result of another closely divided Congress.
Unfortunately, a closely divided Congress is also more likely to produce profligate spending and a trend towards bigger government. Promises of pork projects in exchange for votes is commonplace, but when the majority is so thin, the votes of marginal members of the conference have greater influence and the value of these exchanges increases, which means more horse-trading will occur so that even marginal members are kept happy.
Government will also increase in scope in a closely divided Congress because the Democrats have more reliable ideological anchors: labor unions and extreme environmentalist groups, who can make their voices louder than their votes. Unless believers in limited government and free markets can organize to form a coherent voice to place pressure on legislators in the 108th Congress to offset the power of liberal interest groups, government will continue to grow no matter who wins this year’s elections. Something to remember the next time a mail correspondence claims that your support for a candidate or party will somehow help to reign in government, or a television commercial implies that to vote for an opponent is to sanction wickedness.