Primaries Spotlight Sharp Decline in U.S. House Moderates

by Rob Richie, Sheahan Virgin // Published May 8, 2012



Left to right:  Tim Holden and Jason Altmire



Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary lacked the anticipated fireworks between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the Republican presidential race, but results on the Democratic side may have a far more lasting impact: they underscore the disappearing center in American politics. Two Blue Dog Democrats*, Jason Altmire and Tim Holden, were defeated by more mainstream Democrats. After 20 years of victories in Republican-leaning districts, Holden fell to newcomer Matt Cartwright in a district drawn to be much more Democratic, while Altmire was upset by his colleague Rep. Mark Critz† in a race that, because of redistricting, featured two incumbents battling over one seat. 

Both Cartwright and Critz received strong support from unions and other progressive groups, which sought to defeat Holden and Altmire because of their opposition to President Obama’s health care and climate change legislation. In other words, the party’s base organized against Holden and Altmire because their voting records were not sufficiently orthodox. While the Tea Party’s targeting of moderate Republicans in 2010 and 2012 has received the most media attention, the Pennsylvania results indicate a similar (and arguably just as strong) tendency in the Democratic Party. 

Indeed, the Democrats’ Blue Dog caucus—a barometer of moderate strength—had its numbers reduced by more than half, from 54 to 26, in the 2010 election, in which Republicans made most of their gains in the Republican-leaning districts that wee disproportionately represented by Blue Dogs. The Washington Post reports that primary defeats and retirements are expected to reduce the caucus by at least eight more members by next year.

Although it is no surprise that a party’s most fervent supporters would desire “faithful” representatives ready to stand up for their core principles, the decline of moderates in Congress is worrisome, with Senate moderates also under attack. Although a minority in both major parties, moderate voters exist in large numbers that deserve representation. Furthermore, the political center is necessary to the health of a democratic system, especially one like ours grounded in checks and balances across branches of government. 

Moderates, for instance, can serve as bridges between the two parties, swinging to the majority or away from it in order to develop policy that is more temperate. They also inject civility into a poisonous discourse. But we are in a vicious cycle: the decline of moderates causes each party to become more polarized and isolated, which in turn, only further accelerates the decline of moderates. With the center under attack, moderates face pressure to conform or perish.

Whatever one may think of Holden and Altmire, it is critical for a political system to reflect the wide range of viewpoints; such is the essence of a democratic system. Yet, our current election framework disadvantages moderate candidates and the voters that back them. As manipulated by modern campaign consultants, winner-take-all rules (in which a plurality of votes wins 100% of representation) encourage partisanship, zero-sum thinking, apocalyptic rhetoric, and negative campaigning—since only one side can win in a given congressional district. 

As such, winner-take-all creates a political environment inhospitable to compromise, as it forces centrist politicians to fit themselves into narrow ideological boxes. Clearly, we need rules in place that reflect nuances and partisan gradations, rather than the “two-sizes-fit-all” mentality of winner-take-all. The most natural alterative to winner-take-all elections at the U.S. House level is proportional representation, a system in which like-minded voters can elect candidates in proportion to their share of the overall vote.

FairVote advocates for candidate-based, American forms of proportional representation, what we call “fair voting,” in which voters would elect several representatives in larger “super districts” with voting methods in which 51% of votes wins most seats, but not all. The key is that fair voting plans lower the threshold of votes necessary to win a seat and create opportunities for an array of opinions to be represented within a given super-district. This contrasts sharply with winner-take-all, in which the candidate with the most votes wins and his or her voters receive representation while everyone else gets nothing.

By fairly representing the left, right, and center in any given super district, fair voting would liberate moderate candidates from pressures to conform. With the threshold lowered, moderates could focus on targeted appeals to their core constituency, including a mix of centrist independents and more partisan voters. Both Holden and Altmire were targeted by a Democratic base that demanded fealty to party. It is not terribly difficult to imagine the way in which proportionality could have freed them from these pressures—and given voters in these districts a centrist alternative to the traditional partisan-Democrat-versus-partisan-Republican race set for November.

Fair voting would also weaken the power of partisan redistricting. Winner-take-all makes gerrymandering a particularly potent tool; without those underlying “if-you-win-I-lose, if-I-win-you-lose” rules in place, its power is diminished. Both Holden and Altmire faced difficult roads to reelection, in part, because of redistricting. Pennsylvania Republicans controlled redistricting and packed more Democrats into Holden’s district in order to help Republicans in adjoining districts—thereby making the district less hospitable to Holden’s unique brand of moderation and exposing him to a primary challenge. Altmire, meanwhile, was paired in a district with fellow incumbent Critz. Under fair voting, the Republican’s strategic cartography would have been without purpose and Holden, Altmire, and their opponents all would have a chance to win seats. Fair voting allows such shared representation.

It is time for structural election change. Election rules greatly impact the composition of government—who is in it and who is not, as well as how they get there. If Americans are dissatisfied with the latter—and polls consistently indicate they are—then they must examine the former. Clearly winner-take-all amplifies partisanship and polarization in Congress; it is therefore antagonistic toward the goal of achieving a more collaborative and collegial legislature. Blue Dog Democrats like Holden and Altmire are struggling to survive, while most moderate Republicans were long ago pushed out of Congress. To ensure fair representation in Congress, we must act before all bridges between the parties in Congress have been burned.


* The National Journal’s vote rankings of members of Congress places Altmire (187) and Holden (186) as the fourth and fifth most conservative of the 190 Democrats in the U.S. House; only representatives Dan Boren (OK-2), Mike Ross (AR-4), and Jim Matheson (UT-2) posted records that were more moderate. Both Boren and Ross have decided not to seek reelection in 2012. 

Relative to Altmire, Critz is more liberal. The National Journal’s vote rankings of members of Congress places Critz (169) as the 22nd most conservative Democrat in the U.S. House. While this would arguably place Critz among the party’s Blue Dogs, he is not a member of the Blue Dog caucus.