Democracy survived, but…
Most of the prominent anti-democratic candidates lost and conceded their elections. The army of anti-democratic activists spuriously challenging votes didn’t materialize. The threats to our electoral system are not gone, but the significant efforts to protect our democracy paid off with a relatively smooth 2022 election and democracy-aligned elected leadership in place to administer the 2024 elections.
And yet, this election confirmed a disturbing trend that will take significant work to overcome.
John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck recently published a deep analysis of the 2020 election. In it they highlight one of the most significant challenges to American democracy: the electorate is calcified. Vavreck was on two recent podcasts (one pre- and one post-election) discussing the conclusions and implications of their work.
Calcification is driven by four major factors, Vavreck explains:
- Parties are ideologically farther apart from each other than ever before. (heterogeneity between parties)
- Members are more alike than ever before. (homogeneity within parties)
- The arguments between parties are increasingly on highly divisive identity-inflected issues (“who is a real American” rather than “what should the size and role of the government be”). This makes it harder for voters to see themselves voting for the other side.
- Parties are at near parity, creating perverse incentives. Victory always seems within reach (51%-49% vs 49%-51%) and the stakes are high in terms of the radically different agenda each party would pursue if in power. Rather than reflecting on any electoral loss and considering fundamental changes, parties are incentivized to try to just tweak election tactics or the rules of elections (voting rights, access, administration, district lines) to gain the slight advantage needed to win. Governing is impacted, as well (see Frances Lee’s Insecure Majorities).
Calcification leads to smaller swings in outcomes between elections no matter domestic and global events (COVID, unemployment, impeachment, inflation…). We saw this between 2016 (and 2018 Senate races) and 2020 and now again in the 2022 midterm.
Note: A number of partisans attribute the closer-than-expected election results to the electorate rewarding Democrats for their policy agenda. As Achen & Bartels found, voters unfortunately are not well informed about policy positions. An issue or two may drive some voters (like abortion rights post-Dobbs), but it doesn’t signal an endorsement of a larger platform. In our estimate, the evidence of calcification better explains the broader trends of this election.
Countervailing forces at the margins
A number of Senate, Governor, Secretary of State, and House candidates significantly underperformed their state’s/district’s partisan lean. Analysis points to candidate quality as the critical factor. The lack of experience, competence, and representativeness of these candidates induced rare ticket-splitting and shifted results by up to 10 pts.
Issues divorced from party
The results of a number of state ballot initiatives on what are typically partisan wedge issues (reproductive rights, cannabis, expanding Medicaid access) defied the partisan lean of their respective states. When individual issues are not presented in an explicitly partisan context, voters are not in lock step with the positions of their parties. This further confirms a finding of Sides, Tausanovitch, and Vavreck that in this more identity-based sorting of parties, there is some important variability on policy preferences.
Calcification is not susceptible to a quick fix. We need a concerted long-term strategy for chipping away at its drivers. This is an open challenge for the entire democracy community.
Vavreck points to the third driver as being the lynchpin: divisive identity-inflected debate. We need a growing foothold of elected leaders who exemplify and demonstrate the benefits of a more inclusive, representative politics.
How do we get there? We can build on the insights from this election.
- More quality candidates: Prepare a large number of thoughtful leaders to effectively represent their communities. In many races, quality will be the deciding factor.
- Use identity inclusively: Help candidates build and demonstrate their empathy for their constituents’ challenges. This can help constituents see a candidate as “in group” without elevating more divisive identity-inflected issues.
- Focus down ballot: Start where calcification is weakest. A candidate’s reputation and relationships have a greater chance of overcoming partisan biases in smaller races. Many local elected positions are explicitly nonpartisan, removing partisan signaling. In general, down-ballot races are under-resourced and less contested; interventions go further and the opportunity for building momentum is greater.
Calcification reinforces a challenge for some candidates that is important to flag. In districts with a large partisan lean, candidates of the minority party are near guaranteed to lose. If they wish to win, candidates who might normally affiliate with the minority party need to decide whether to run as an independent or for the majority party’s nomination. If they feel they can represent their community well and with integrity, it is likely the only path to victory.
Eye on the prize
It’s easy to get caught up in the horse race. Elections, though, are just the interview selection process. The job is governing and it is hard. Most candidates are unqualified. We need effective, responsive representatives who can lead effective, responsive government. That’s the point. That’s the goal.
So as we congratulate the winners, it’s a good time to reflect:
- In each election, did the best people—for the race and the job—run?
- Are the winners prepared to govern well?
This is Empowered To Run’s mission: to train thoughtful leaders everywhere to not just run successfully, but govern effectively.
It starts today. Want to help?
The 2024 campaign season just kicked off. With your support, we will develop 10 new courses and prepare 4,500+ state & local candidates ahead of the elections – candidates who can run, win, and govern inclusively, chipping away at calcification. Here are three ways you can contribute to this effort:
- Champion Empowered To Run in your circles
- Invite others to engage with us
- Invest with financial resources
Would you like to discuss how you can best help? We’d love to hear from you: