Getting Primaried: Politicians Paralyzed by Fear of Losing Power

Author: Erik Fogg
Created: 16 October, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

I often get asked questions such as, “why isn’t the GOP standing up to Trump? Congress obviously hates him.” Sometimes the questions are worded with less curiosity, but that is the ultimate question behind what people are saying.

While it’s not always clear just how each member of Congress feels, it appears to be the case that there is greater intra-party antagonism between the GOP Congress and the presidency than in a very long time.

If this is the case, why does it all seem to be swept under the rug rather than brought into the light?

The answer, of course, lies in re-election incentives, but it is not so simple as to simply say “re-election incentives” and then be done with it.

Are members of Congress simply power-grubbing maniacs with no moral compass or no care for the country? It is impossible to say what lies in the heart of one US lawmaker to another. However, having met with a few I believe at least many believe they are trying to do their best for their constituents and country, based on their perceptions of the constraints around them.

Perhaps their primary goal currently is re-election. If so, it may be to prevent someone “bad” from taking their place. Who knows?

But that incentive is seriously in play right now.

How the Tail Wags the Dog

Trump’s popularity is hovering below 40 percent. This means nearly 2 Americans disapprove of Trump for every 1 that approves. This would normally suggest that he does not have much in the way of political power.

But if we look closely at the seat of his political power, we start to understand more. While (in one poll) 37% approve of how the president is handling his job, 79% of Republicans do. The math seems not to work out until you realize that only 26% of Americans are Republicans.

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The conventional wisdom (whether correct or not) is that if you pick a political fight with a popular president of your own party, you’re in trouble come re-election time. Not so much from the other party, but you’re at risk of getting “primaried.” The president’s supporters in your party will come out to oust you for someone else who wants to stand by the president’s agenda.

Many GOP lawmakers may be nervous about an open fight with the President because he remains very popular among the small faction (Republicans as a whole) they depend on to win the primary. This is how the tail wags the dog: a comparatively small minority of Trump supporters have Congress in a bit of a hostage situation.

Until and unless Trump’s popularity wanes further, that incentive will remain in play for Republican lawmakers. They may make individual decisions counter to that incentive, but it’s likely we won’t observe a mass Congressional uprising against Trump until that incentive fades.

We see this reality come into the light anecdotally. Senator Bob Corker essentially called President Trump a child in need of daycare. He did this after he announced that he was retiring from Senate: he no longer had re-election incentives, so he could speak his mind--or at least respond to other incentives.

The Times, They May Be A Changin’

Trump has stumped for precisely one GOP lawmaker in a special primary so far: Luther Strange, in Alabama. That candidate lost. Alabama is a state where Trump had (around the special election) 55% approval --much higher than the national average. Despite this (and lots of money spent by the GOP establishment), Trump’s candidate lost.

The candidate Alabama picked, Roy Moore, is not a moderate “RINO” hoping to #RESIST Trump or any of that. He’s an insurgent railing against the GOP establishment, hoping to really take down DC from the inside.

Sound familiar?

This primary loss is a sign that Trump’s supporters may not vote for who he tells them to. This opens up a much bigger can of worms (including: “How much do his supporters care about him being able to accomplish his legislative agenda?”) that we can leave aside for now.

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Trump’s popularity is also slowly degrading among Republicans, which means lawmakers may bide their time to see how low it can get. The other change one might see is a “pact” for many GOP lawmakers at once to denounce and break from Trump when he’s sufficiently unpopular. If this happens, Trump could have too many targets to campaign against.

If there is going to be a GOP break from Trump, it is likely to come all at once. It would be by far the safest and most effective way to use such a break to achieve a goal rather than just be a beautiful hill to die on.

How Do We Prevent Dog-Wagging in the Future?

There are a number of structural changes we can make. Right now, the 35% or so support that Donald Trump has is highly amplified because of a combination of closed primaries and first-past-the-post elections.

Closed primaries allow small, highly motivated partisan factions to control who goes on to the general election, so we’re stuck choosing between partisan favorites rather than people who appeal to the entire country.

A first-past-the-post voting system causes a two-party system to emerge. If someone asks you why you don’t vote third-party even though you don’t like the other choices, explain Duverger’s Law to them.

Can we change these? Yes, we can.

Photo Source: CNN

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