Posted on October 10, 2002
A Woman Governor-to-be in Hawaii
In an election that could upset the Democratic Party's control of the governor's mansion since the early years of statehood, two women will face off in Hawaii's gubernatorial race this November. Whichever of the two candidates win, Democratic nominee and two-term Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono or Republican nominee, Linda Lingle, the former mayor of Maui, they will join the lonely ranks of female governors (Arizona, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Montana). This marks only the second time in the nation that two women have won the two major party nominations in a general election for governor. In 1986, Republican Kay Orr and Democrat Helen Boosalis ran for governor in Nebraska.
With several other strong woman gubernatorial candidates, 2002 may mark an increase in women governors, but it won't be another "Year of the Woman" in congressional elections. Any increase in women in the U.S. House will be in the low single-digits, in sharp contrast to the dramatic increase after the last redistricting in 1992 when far more seats were made competitive in redistricting. Women currently hold a mere 13 percent of seats in Congress, one of the lowest levels in the world among well-established democracies.
Dancing the Two-Choice Tango
Thomas Mann, who watches Congress from the Brookings Institution, was quoted in the Washington Post recently saying that a new-breed of conservative politicians have torn a page from President George Bush's playbook. "They reflect the president, who is a very conservative man on things like taxes, missile defense and social issues but has figured a way to . . . appear more moderate than he is," Mann said. Mann said these new Republicans pursue politics "with more soothing rhetoric and a seemingly more accommodating style."
Many Democrats do the same thing. Former president Bill Clinton was famous for "triangulating" his way to re-election in 1996, while most leading contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination this month supported giving the president the authority to invade Iraq despite opposition from most Democratic Party voters.
"New Democrat".... "Compassionate Conservative"... Expect more and more of these labels in a winner-take-all system, where our two-choice politics bestow a disproportionate amount of power on a small political minority -- "swing voters." In low-turnout elections (all too frequent in the United States, with some primary and local election turnouts in single digits), those in a party's base who may sit out an election if not inspired can be defined as "swing," but the voters who inevitably draw the greatest attention are those 10 to 20 percent willing to vote for either major party -- either because they are single issue voters or because they are undecided. Because undecided swing voters determine most close elections, it's no wonder so many campaign appeals, sound bites and television ads from both major parties are directed to them and sound so similar. And it should be no surprise that attack ads still dominate the final days of campaigns, as swing voters can be more easily persuaded of your opponent's lack of worthiness than of your own positive qualities.
Indeed most major party candidates become addicted to the new modern techniques of polling, focus groups and dial meter groups to figure out which issues and groups of voters to talk to and which to ignore. In the process, many major issues, including ones that most voters deeply care about, can be left on the political sidelines. This is leading to a worrisome dumbing down of politics and a disconnection between what elected leaders do and what we debate in campaigns. These techniques are inevitable results of a two-choice, winner-take- all political system, where political operatives have the latest technology to be able to easily slice and dice the electorate.
German Elections : On Sunday, September 23, nearly 50 million Germans went to the polls to elect their national legislature, a turnout of four in five eligible voters. Given that more than 90% of Germans directly elected someone under Germany's full representation system, three out of every four German adults now have their voice represented directly in their national legislature. That's a sharp contrast to the fewer than one in four American adults who elected anyone to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, the last time we elected the House in a non-presidential election year. That year fewer than one in three adults voted in a House race, and despite the lack of competitive races, a third of those votes were cast for losing candidates. (For more such statistics, see our "Dubious Democracy: 2001" report, which tracks various election statistics from 1982 to 2000 for the nation and every state, at http://archive.fairvote.org/2001/ .)
In this year's German elections, the incumbent Social Democrat-Green Party coalition was re-elected in a squeaker. Germany uses a "Mixed Member" system where half the legislators are elected in U.S.-style, winner-take-all district elections, and the other half by party lists in which five percent of the national vote is required to entitle a party to a fair share of seats in the legislature. The German Green Party won close to 10% of the vote and also its first-ever district seat. The failure of the Greens to win district seats in the past is a good measure of how difficult it is for political minorities to win in winner-take-all elections. Even though the German Greens are far more established than any third party in the United States and even though Germany has full public financing of elections and bans most sources of private money, still a "third" party like the Green Party would be shut out if the election was held only under winner-take-all rules.
In fact, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, despite his popularity and his party's sixteen year reign over German politics, never won his local district seat. In that particular area, Kohl's Christian Democratic party was the political minority. These examples help lay to rest the notion that, outside of the lightning-strikes kind of exception, third parties and the smaller major party in any given area (i.e. political minorities) in our system can start winning representation if they just "work harder," "have better candidates" or "raise more money."