Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Total War of U.S. Politics, PA Edition

A few months ago I commented on Ronald Brownstein's fascinating (and horrifying) observation about the changing nature of U.S. politics. He puts it best:
American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle. No more. 
During the health care debate it became clear that the courts, in addition to governors and state legislatures, have increasingly become players in national policy disputes. This political homogenization (eliminating political diversity in favor of party identification, e.g. political parties are the only coalitions) has in fact been occurring for years. The Senate and House have historically been dynamic institutions with ever-shifting coalitions based on multiple identities (region, state, gender, etc.), but lately political rationality based solely around national political parties has become the main driver of public debate.

So what are the limits to this ever-widening political total war? Nick Baumann reports on the latest attempt to bring new firepower to the fight: changing select states' electoral college vote apportionment rules from winner-take-all to a roughly proportional method based on congressional districts. Nebraska and Maine already split their electoral votes (Obama got one vote from Omaha in 2008), but if specific battleground states unilaterally make this change, it could be devastating for Obama's reelection prospects.

This plan hatching in Pennsylvania (also applicable in other Republican-controlled purple states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin) is a great test of how far down in the layers of federalism the partisan total war goes. That's because such a move on the part of Pennsylvania's Republicans would be explicitly favoring a political boost to national Republicans at the cost of local and state power. Let me explain.

Historically, states employed all types of different methods for selecting their electoral college votes, but over time they discovered that a winner-take-all system (like the one found in most states today) affords the most power and influence during the election contest. By grouping all their electoral votes together, a state maximizes its prize, forcing candidates to pay attention to it in the form of campaign visits and policy concessions. So by shifting away from winner-take-all, Pennsylvania would help the Republican presidential nominee at the expense of influence and attention. Just ask yourself, why would Obama (or his opponent) sink scarce resources into Pennsylvania when at most they might shift one or two electoral votes from the suburbs.

So it's clear that in the realm of presidential politics, there exists a major trade-off between state power and national party rationality. But Pennsylvania's boat-rocking doesn't worry me too much. I find it hard to believe that very many low-profile state politicians are willing to severely reduce their state's power in order to help out their national party. Just look at their actions on the related issue of presidential primary contests, where many states have pushed to move their nominating date earlier and earlier in order to garner influence and attention, all while drawing strong rebukes and threats from national party leaders. Although Pennsylvania's plan probably won't take off on a national level, it does seem like total-war true-believers are popping up in more and more local offices, and it might only take one state to swing the race in 2012.

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