Last week the biggest presidential election news was that Republican nominee Donald Trump did not “pivot” from the harshly anti-immigration positions he took during the primary campaign. After clearing the extremely low bar of acting in a minimally civil manner as he read prepared remarks in the company of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump returned to his primary form the same evening at a rally in Phoenix. There, a red-faced Trump asserted that he would build a “beautiful” “impenetrable” border wall, and that Mexico would foot the bill, despite Peña Nieto’s flat rejection of that possibility earlier in the day. Trump promised a “deportation task force” to round up a wildly inflated estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes. And he even suggested (presumably as a joke) deporting Hillary Clinton.
While fawning Trump spokespeople posing as journalists crowed about how “presidential” their man appeared standing at his podium in Mexico, the rest of the media expressed surprise that, despite numerous hints and suggestions from members of his campaign and from Trump himself, he did not substantially “soften” his immigration position at the Phoenix rally. The failure to pivot to a more centrist position was taken as further evidence that Trump is running an unconventional, and thus likely a losing, campaign. It was taken for granted that pivoting would have been the more sensible approach.
Yet the whole idea of a general-election pivot should be profoundly troubling. After all, a “pivot” is simply a euphemism for what is more pejoratively described as a flip-flop. The expectation of a general election pivot reflects deep cynicism about politics. Further, as I explain below, it connects with a number of other pathologies of contemporary American democracy.
The Need to Pivot
Not every change of position by a politician counts as a pivot. Politicians sometimes have good reasons to reject policies they once favored or to adopt those they formerly opposed. Circumstances may have changed, or public opinion may have turned decisively. In a democracy, there is nothing shameful about politicians responding to the will of the people. That is how the system is supposed to work.
In contemporary American politics, a pivot refers to a particular kind of change that happens between the primary and general elections. It results from the difference between the views held by primary voters and general election voters.
Not all that long ago, the Democratic and Republican parties contained overlapping coalitions. For example, northern Republicans were often more liberal than southern Democrats. However, since the realignment that began with President Lyndon Johnson’s support for civil rights legislation and candidate Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” the parties have been growing more ideologically coherent and distant from one another. As a result of that shift, what political scientists call “geographic clustering” on the basis of ideology, and other factors, participants in modern primary elections tend to be more partisan than in years past. Republican primary voters are considerably more conservative than general election voters, and Democratic primary voters are considerably more liberal.
Consequently, to win a primary election, a Republican must run to the right of centrist public opinion, while a Democrat must run to the left. Then, to win a general election, a nominee must pivot back towards the center to win centrist voters.
Because that dynamic is so familiar, it is easy to miss how disturbing it is. A candidate who successfully navigates the primaries and the general election will have effectively misled either the primary electorate, the general electorate, or possibly both about his or her true intentions. Put simply, our system rewards dishonesty.
The Extremely Long Campaign Enables Electoral Amnesia
To be sure, there are countervailing forces. Most prominently, a candidate who plays strongly to the party base in the primaries may have difficulty pivoting in the general election for two reasons. First, doing so might anger the base, thus reducing turnout by a core constituency. Second, voters who remember what a candidate said during the primaries will be skeptical of his or her espousal of considerably more centrist positions in the general election.
Nonetheless, candidates routinely attempt to pivot, presumably because they believe that they have more to gain by attracting centrists than they have to lose by alienating the party base. But why do candidates believe that they can fool general election voters?
Part of the answer may be that reachable general election swing voters tend to be less informed about politics than primary voters. A voter who did not participate in the primaries simply might not remember what the candidate said to gain his or her party’s nomination.
The likelihood of voter amnesia is greatly increased by the extraordinary length of our presidential election campaigns. The first Republican presidential debate of the current cycle occurred thirteen months ago. A weakly engaged independent who is genuinely undecided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has had plenty of time to forget what Trump said at the time, or even what he said in the latter stages of the GOP primaries.
Why are U.S. presidential elections so long? Part of the answer may be that, unlike parliamentary systems in which “snap” elections can be called, potential candidates know exactly when the general election will occur; they then leapfrog one another to get as early a start as possible on fundraising and outreach.
American federalism makes matters worse. Primaries are state-by-state affairs. With a perceived advantage from holding early primaries and caucuses, the electoral contests begin early in the year. This year the Iowa caucuses were held on February 1. In 2012 they were held on January 3. Candidates who seek to raise money and win support in Iowa and New Hampshire begin campaigning months, sometimes years, earlier. That gives general election voters plenty of time to forget what the candidates said.
Catching Pivoters Exacerbates the Influence of Money
In a perfect world, the press would hold candidates accountable for pivoting. Yet with pivoting now seen as the norm, we see few headlines of the form “Candidate X said he was for policy A in the primary but now says he opposes it. Was he lying then or is he lying now?”.
Accordingly, it falls to a candidate’s general election opponent to point out how the candidate’s position has shifted. A Republican candidate or his backers can run advertisements showing the Democratic candidate staking out a strongly left-of-center position in the primary campaign to discredit the Democrat’s post-nomination pivot, and vice-versa. But so long as pivoting is accepted as normal, it is not clear that such ads are effective—and in a system in which pivoting is widespread, each side’s ads can largely cancel out the other’s.
That is not to say that all pivoting is equal. Hillary Clinton can plausibly say that any outreach to Republicans on foreign policy reflects no change in position since the primaries, just a change in emphasis. It is more difficult for Donald Trump to say that he is no longer an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, misogynist because . . . what? . . . he has met some upstanding undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and women?
Yet even if political ads calling out an opponent’s pivot can be effective, they are nonetheless expensive. That connects to another pathology of our system: the importance of fundraising and the concomitant risk that policies will be biased towards the interests of the wealthy. It did not escape notice that Clinton was barely visible on the campaign trail over the last month. Where was she? Courting high-value donors at fundraisers.
That’s not illegal, of course. Indeed, given the increasing inadequacy of public financing of presidential campaigns and the Supreme Court’s decisions invalidating strict campaign finance regulation, intense fundraising has become a necessary element of running for president.
However, the fact that we have grown accustomed to the large role of money in our politics is no more a reason to accept it as healthy than is the familiarity of pivoting and our interminable presidential elections. Sometimes the things we take for granted are worse than those that we notice.