Commenting on Eric Cantor’s defeat, Newt Gingrich claimed that it showed “…there’s a large element of America that wants a fight.” The “fight” he’s talking about, of course, is the fight against the threat posed by the forces of Big Government, led by Barack Obama and the Democrats, to the US Constitution and all the liberties we hold dear. Cantor personified the failure of “establishment” Republicans to deal with that threat. After all, Cantor has been majority leader of the House of Representatives for three years, and the federal government is still functioning, more or less. Obama hasn’t even been impeached.
How large is that “element” Gingrich is talking about? That’s an important question, because Gingrich and others would have us believe that Tea Party radicalism is a vast tidal wave engulfing the nation. Let’s look at some numbers.
Voter registration in Cantor’s 7th Virginia Congressional District stands at just over 500,000. Of these, just 65,000 voted in Tuesday’s primary election; 36,000 voted for Dave Brat, Cantor’s ultra-rightist challenger. So the tidal wave in Virginia’s 7th carried just over 7% of the electorate (36/500K). These numbers reflect an enduring reality of American politics: turnout is generally quite low in primary elections, and those who do turn out to vote are, on the average, more intensely committed partisans than non-primary voters. So, the primary electorate will tend to be skewed to the more extreme end of the range of the ideological spectrum that the party represents. The result is that you only need a very small minority of the electorate holding nutty political views to put a radical nut into office.
Let’s look at this phenomenon from a national perspective. Polls generally show that about 25% of the electorate identifies as Republican. (Dems are around 30% and independents around 35%.) We can assume that people’s partisan self-identification reflects their voting registration, which would mean that about 25% of Americans are registered to vote as Republicans. Let’s assume, further, that about half of registered Republicans vote regularly in primary elections. (This is a very high estimate, but a lower number would only strengthen my argument.) So, about 12.5% of Americans vote in Republican primaries, which means that a mere 7% of American voters can decide the fate of Republican politicians (very close to the 7% that ousted Eric Cantor). That implies that you only need about 7% of Americans to hold truly nutty political views for those views to dominate the Republican Party.
Does anyone doubt that at least 7% of Americans hold truly nutty political views? Polls have shown that numbers well in excess of 7% believe that climate change is a vast conspiratorial hoax, that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim, that the federal government wants to take our guns away, etc. etc. So, 7% is not an unreasonable guesstimate of the percentage of Americans who believe pretty much all of these things. What we’re talking about clearly is not a vast tidal wave—a better metaphor would be a tempest in a teapot. The political orientation of one of our two major political parties is determined by a very small minority of Americans who are, politically speaking, crazy. As I said in yesterday’s post, even if most Republican public officials aren’t crazy, they are compelled to talk and act crazy for fear of facing a primary challenge from the crazy right. Cantor’s fate confirms that that fear is realistic.
So, this is another way of answering the question that I tried to grapple with in some of my posts last fall: how can an entire political party be crazy? The answer is simple: it’s in the numbers.