Mitchell’s Musings 5-28-2018: All Politics is Local – Except When It Isn’t

25 May 2018 8:38 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-28-2018: All Politics is Local – Except When It Isn’t

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill supposedly said that “all politics is local.” What the phrase seems to mean is that issues in state and local races (essentially every race except for the presidency) are primarily determined by local conditions and issues. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that the impact of local races matters only locally. A few seats in the House or Senate, for example, can determine which party controls the chamber and – potentially – the national agenda.

There is a problem when all politics is local, but the national agenda is a product of the collectivity of local races. In effect, the analogy is with externalities in economics. The incentives for candidates at the micro (state and local) level is to do what needs to be done to maximize their chances of winning. What they need to do is to focus on locally-based strategies. If there is a benefit or a cost to the national polity in following those strategies, such considerations are underweighted.

In California at the present time, local conditions have occurred which could have national repercussions – particularly on which party will control the House after the 2018 election - but which seem to be left out of the calculation by Democrats. Of course, there is another quote that is attributed to humorist Will Rogers – “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” Perhaps that approach, too, is playing out in California.

I have in mind specifically the current gubernatorial race. Because Republicans have been marginalized as a party in California, there is virtually no doubt that the next governor of California will be a Democrat. Four major Democrats and two Republicans are running to succeed incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown who is termed out. All candidates must first compete in a nonpartisan “top-2” primary in early June. Whichever candidates come out first and second will then compete in the general election in November. If two Democrats come out in the top 2, there will be no Republican in the general election. But if a Republican comes in among the top 2, there will be a more traditional Democrat vs. Republican race (which the Democrat will go on to win).

According to polls, the lead Democrat is the current Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco. It appears that the second Democrat is former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. (The other two Democrats don’t seem to have gotten traction.) Villaraigosa has the support of wealthy charter-school proponents who are providing significant monetary support. And he is a Latino in a state in which the Latino electorate is significant and growing. Finally, he is well-known in the more populous southern region of the state because of his two terms as mayor of LA. Nonetheless, he seems to be behind Newsom in the polls and the question is whether Villaraigosa or one of the Republicans will come in second – and thus proceed to the November general election.

Among the Republicans, there is a wealthy businessman, John Cox who has confessed to not having voted for Donald Trump in 2016. (He says he voted for the Libertarian.) His opponent is a state assemblyman, Travis Allen, who styles himself as the real conservative. Allen was a Trump supporter in 2016. Nonetheless, Trump has officially endorsed Cox. I will come back to that anomaly in a moment.

From the “all-politics-are-local” viewpoint, frontrunner Newsom would logically prefer that one of the Republicans win second place. If it’s Newsom vs. a Republican in the November general election, Newsom is virtually guaranteed to win. In contrast, if it is Newsom vs. Villaraigosa, i.e., a race between two Democrats, the outcome is less certain.

Newsom’s calculation in preferring a Republican opponent doesn’t have to be surmised. He has said he prefers a Republican opponent. And since Cox seemed to be the stronger of the two Republicans, especially with the Trump endorsement, Newsom has run a TV ad which attacks Cox, alone among his Democratic and Republican primary opponents. The strategy seems to be to elevate Cox as THE true Republican opponent, thus getting Republicans united around Cox, and thus pushing Cox into second place, leaving Villaraigosa out of the running in November.

Republicans know that they are not going to elect the next governor. But if there is no Republican in the gubernatorial race, Republican turnout could be low in the general election. In the background is the U.S. Senate race in which the Republicans have no major candidates in the primary, thus ensuring that in November, the Senate race will be between two Democrats. If there is no Republican candidate for governor and no candidate for U.S. senator, the lack of candidates could depress Republican turnout.[1]

Why would that outcome matter to Republican party leaders? Because there are some key congressional races in California in potential “swing” districts. Those district elections could determine who controls the House. Republican turnout could be key in such districts. That consideration is not something that Newsom seems to be worried about – he is the all-politics-are-local example. What could guarantee his success in winning the governorship in November could also lead to continued Republican control of Congress. But the national repercussion is an underweighted externality in his calculation.

For Republicans, in contrast, local and national strategies align. Getting more turnout by having a Republican in the gubernatorial race will likely increase the odds of retaining control of the House. But there are also swing districts in the state legislature. Democrats in recent years teeter on having two-thirds majorities in the state assembly and state senate. When they have such a supermajority, Republicans can be totally ignored. When they don’t, Republicans – even in their diminished condition in California – have some leverage. Thus, it’s no mystery why California Republicans prevailed on President Trump to endorse Cox, despite the latter’s non-support in 2016.  

What has happened, in short, would be well understood by Tip O’Neill – even if he would be disappointed in the outcome. And probably Will Rogers would understand why Republicans seem to have a more coherent strategy than Democrats. Add in the economists’ views on underweighting externalities and you have a pretty good explanation of what has occurred in the California primary.



[1] Republicans have put proposition on the November 2018 ballot which would repeal a gasoline tax earmarked for roads and transportation. Part of their strategy is that by putting a tax repeal on the ballot, anti-tax Republicans will turn out in November. Still having a governor candidate to vote for would be an added incentive for Republican turnout.

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