Reading Too Much Meaning into the 2010 Primaries

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Matt Rourke / AP

A person views returns on large screen at Rep. Joe Sestak's, D-Pa., primary night watch event at the Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

It's fun to watch the political analysts search for the hidden message in the primaries of 2010. Less than 2% of the electorate went to the polls on Tuesday, but somehow America's voters were sending a message to incumbents, or sending a message to the establishment, or even a message to President Obama. The analyses make sense, until you think about them for a minute: Why would Democratic and Republican primary voters who wouldn't agree on the time of day or the color of the sky be sending the same message? How exactly does a Pennsylvania Democrat who voted for liberal Joe Sestak raise his voice in unison with a Kentucky Republican who voted for tea-partier Rand Paul?

The primaries do raise some interesting questions about the November midterms — and well get to those soon — but the only consistent message that primary voters have been sending in 2010 is, We're primary voters!

This is an obvious but strangely underappreciated point, and while I hate to gloat, it's a point I made last summer when moderate Charlie Crist had a 30-point lead over conservative Marco Rubio among Florida Republicans and Arlen Specter had an even bigger lead over Sestak among Pennsylvania Democrats. Oh, who am I kidding; I love to gloat. So here's what I wrote: "Crist will still have a huge advantage in money and name recognition, but when choosing between a Republican and a Republican, Republicans usually pick the Republican. It's the same phenomenon that could doom party-switching Senator Arlen Specter."

Most Republican voters who are willing to schlep to the polls for an off-year primary are highly motivated, hard-line anti-Obama partisans, so they're highly motivated to support the hardest-line anti-Obama partisans they can find. That's why Crist never had a chance against Rubio. That's why grass-roots GOP activists in Utah dumped conservative Senator Bob Bennett for two even more conservative tea-partiers. Independents can vote in Arizona's GOP primary, so former apostate John McCain might hold off right-winger J.D. Hayworth, but don't be surprised to see tea-party activists knock off "establishment" Republicans in states like Colorado, California and Nevada, just as Paul did in Kentucky.

On the Democratic side, voters also seem to be looking for the most committed partisans. That's why Sestak beat the shameless Specter, a longtime Republican whose vote was clearly rentable but never ownable no matter what Obama said about him. That's why the populist Jack Conway beat more conservative Dan Mongiardo in Kentucky, and the populist Bill Halter forced more conservative Senator Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in Arkansas. What do you know: given a choice between a Democrat and a Democrat, Democrats tend to pick the Democrat.

So what does this all mean for November? Well, candidates win general elections in two ways: rallying their base and appealing to the center. These days, the polarized political climate seems to be producing base candidates. Sorry to be Captain Obvious again, but that will work out better in some states than in others. In a deep-red state like Utah, a Republican like Mike Lee would probably coast into the Senate if he's the nominee even though he wants to wind down Social Security; in blue Pennsylvania, former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey is leading Sestak in the early polls, but I bet he's too conservative to win there. In general, Republican voters will be fired up in November no matter what; to the extent that tea-party candidates alienate independent voters, they might save some vulnerable swing-state Democrats.

Assessing the Democratic choices is trickier, because mobilizing the base is a traditional problem the ruling party needs to solve to survive midterm elections. It's hard to imagine loyal Democrats flocking to the polls to rescue Lincoln, who frequently sticks her thumb in their eyes. Halter probably wouldn't win either — Arkansas was a horrible state for Obama — but he's not necessarily a worse candidate just because he's farther left. Same goes for Conway, who might even have a chance to win; Paul is a loose-cannon Libertarian with some out-there ideas about Austrian economics, some anti-war attitudes that might not play well in Kentucky, and a history of undeniably principled but nevertheless loopy convictions about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that dominated Thursday's news cycle before he recanted them under pressure. And as recent polls have shown, Sestak is far more electable than Specter would have been. The left wouldn't have been enthusiastic about a guy they've been voting against for decades; the middle would have been rightfully suspicious of a flip-flopping party-switcher who admitted he was reinventing himself to save his hide; the right would have been hellbent for revenge against a turncoat. Instead, the primary produced a reliable Democrat in a reliably Democratic state.

There's one other important message here beyond November, a message about the power of a primary threat to affect public policy. Specter switched parties because he wasn't conservative enough for a Republican primary, but he wouldn't have spent the last year as a lockstep liberal Democrat if he hadn't been worried about Sestak. Similarly, Lincoln wouldn't have proposed tough regulations for derivatives if she hadn't been worried about Halter; it's possible that she wouldn't have supported Obama's health reforms. On the Republican side, the tea-party threat persuaded incumbents that cooperation with Obama would imperil their job security. This is one reason I've been so skeptical that financial reform is going to happen, even when people who are much closer to the issue tell me it's a done deal. We'll see. In any case, the rash of primaries this year does not foreshadow a lot of bipartisan cooperation in the future.

Otherwise, I have no idea what they foreshadow, and neither do the experts. I know political analysts are supposed to make sweeping judgments about how Tuesday was a relief for the Democrats or a rebuke to the establishment. But really, it was just another Captain Obvious reminder that the country is polarized, and that polarized people like polarized candidates. Primaries don't send messages about the state of the electorate. That's what general elections are for.