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It seems that almost every week we see primary-election outcomes that not too long ago would have seemed highly unlikely, if not downright preposterous. Candidates in both parties who would have been seen as unorthodox, eccentric, or even extreme a decade or two ago are now winning nominations in unusual places. At the same time, others who would have been well in their party’s mainstream now seem incapable of winning a nomination.
Look no further than last week’s Democratic and Republican Senate primaries in Pennsylvania. Just six years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat the significantly more progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders handily in the state’s Democratic presidential primary by a dozen percentage points, a margin of just over 200,000 votes. But that was then, and this is now. Last week, progressive Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Sanders endorser in that 2016 race, not only trounced the more centrist Rep. Conor Lamb by 32 points, a margin of over 400,000 votes, but carried every one of the Keystone State’s counties. As former CBS anchor Dan Rather said about another candidate years ago, Lamb was “beaten like a rented mule.”
The profiles of the two candidates could hardly be more different.
A Marine Corps officer for four years and later an assistant U.S. attorney, Lamb could have been dreamed up by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruiting office. The 6’8” Fetterman, on the other hand, made baggy basketball pants and a hooded sweatshirt his calling card on the campaign trail.
It’s hard to look at the two of them and imagine that they are in the same political party and both from the Pittsburgh area. One looks like where the Democrats have been, the other where they seem to be headed.
Meanwhile the Republican Senate primary is clearly headed for a recount, as Mehmet Oz is running ahead of former hedge-fund manager David McCormick by fewer than 1,000 votes. With McCormick thought to have more support from voters who cast ballots early, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.
Oz could be described as a double-Ivy, having a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a professor emeritus of surgery at Columbia, but many in the medical profession are not impressed with his credentials. In a letter to the med-school dean in 2015, a group of prominent physicians wrote that Oz has “repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops. Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.” Most astoundingly for a GOP candidate, the Cleveland-born Oz has served in the Turkish Army.
McCormick, a West Point graduate with a master’s and PhD from Princeton, got his private-sector start as a Pittsburgh-based McKinsey consultant, did stints as an undersecretary in both the Commerce and Treasury Departments in the George W. Bush administration, and then moved on to Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, currently with $140 billion under management. He’s been attacked for some of Bridgewater’s investments in China, which is public enemy No. 1 in many GOP primary ads.
So, what is going on? Like many other things in life, politics has many moving parts and often no single explanation will suffice. On one level, voters have grown so tired of and cynical about politics that they seem attracted to highly unconventional candidates, while those with more traditional résumés and profiles are eschewed as just more of the same.
Then there is the actual makeup of the parties. With the ideological sorting that began in the 1980s and 1990s, liberals or left-tilting Republicans have almost all died off or abandoned their party, as did right-tilting Democrats. More aggressive gerrymandering also pulled each party’s primary electorate to the extremes. Cable television, talk radio, ideological websites, and social media have all contributed to group polarization, so that like-minded people discussing an issue will become even more extreme in their thinking, preexisting positions reinforced and amplified.
The end result is two parties that have moved so far away from the center that they can’t even see the middle, or imagine who might be there or how they may see things. Increasingly exotic ideas and arguments flourish, getting little if any pushback within the parties. Swing voters listen to their proposals with bewilderment, ending up deciding their vote based on which party they seem to be most mad at, at the moment.
What was the extreme is now the mainstream, and what was mainstream is now extreme.