Is Party Switching About to Decline?

Let me ask a question that might seem quite bizarre: Are we about to see party switching approach extinction? This question is somewhat bizarre because ...
by | December 30, 2009

Let me ask a question that might seem quite bizarre: Are we about to see party switching approach extinction?

This question is somewhat bizarre because we've seen a fair amount of party switching lately. The two big switches that occurred this year were when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter became a Democrat and Alabama U.S. Rep Parker Griffith became a Republican (just last week).

There has been the usual trickle of lower-level party switches too. For example, Vermont's State Auditor switched from being a Democrat to a Republican in September.

So why am I wondering if party switching is about to decline?

The basic reason is that the current political environment looks as though it will make successful party switches unusually difficult. Republicans really don't like Democrats. Democrats really don't like Republicans. In that context, Republican voters are less likely to accept a former Democratic politician into their ranks. Democrats are less likely to accept a former Republican.

At least, that's what I'd guess. The truth is that party switching often has been a dicey proposition, regardless of the political environment. But, at least some politicians who have made the switch from one major party to the other were embraced not only by the elites of their party (who are usually willing to welcome almost anyone who will join), but also the grassroots. Louisiana U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander and Texas U.S. Rep Ralph Hall are two fairly recent examples.

Are those sorts of smooth transitions now something close to impossible? We have two good test cases in Specter and Griffith, both of whom face energetic opposition from within their new parties.

Party switches are usually motivated by a combination of principle and self-preservation (though the exact balance between the two motives varies dramatically from case to case). If Specter and Griffith lose in primaries, then the message to politicians around the country will be that switching parties isn't an effective self-preservation tool.

If party switching goes out of style, one possibility is that we will see an increase in simple party leaving. If, say, you don't want to be a Democrat but the Republicans don't want you to be a Republican, why not become an independent?

We've been seeing some of that recently. A Maine Republican state representative and a Colorado Democratic state representative each became independents in the last couple of weeks.

Winning elections as an independent isn't easy. But, if you're already a sitting officeholder, some of the obstacles of winning as an independent are reduced. At least I'd imagine the obstacles are reduced. The truth is that it doesn't happen that often, although I expect it will happen more in the future. What do you say, Joe Lieberman?

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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