The Politics of Parity and 'The Odd Man In'

Ten years ago, as the 2002 midterm elections -- the first since the 9/11 attacks -- approached their finish, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly observed that the parties were still almost evenly divided and that “the battle between the two great parties for a sustainable post-New Deal primacy” was far from settled. He also noted that in such a volatile and evenly divided political climate, “the Odd Man is in.” The late Mr. Kelly (he tragically died covering the Iraq War in 2003) predicted that American politics would get even more nasty due to its parity and hyper-competitiveness: “We will be seeing a lot more of all those things that nice people find so distasteful in politics. (As a not obsessively nice person, hurrah.)”

While I did not share Mr. Kelly’s enthusiasm for the Bush-Cheney administration, he hit the nail on the head in this highly prescient column. Kelly identified three trends that would come to the fore in the new “Age of Parity.”

1)"Seriously unattractive candidates." "If you are somebody who strikes many people as appalling, or at least uninspiring, and yet you would like to rule the world -- congratulations. Parity politics means that now anybody really can grow up to be president. … In an ordinary time, a politician who is persistently unattractive to a large percentage of voters -- Mrs. Clinton, for example -- cannot reasonably hope to prevail in statewide or national general elections. But parity perversely rewards such a candidate. Call it the Gore-Bush Rule of Parity: a passionately divided core electorate means that any major party nominee will get 48 percent of the vote, no matter how weak that candidate is in one way or another. (Well, almost any. There remains a floor the voters won't go below; call it the Torricelli Exception.) To win, the nominee need move only a relative handful of votes; the rest are givens. Thus, the benefits of mass appeal and electioneering competence are minimized, and so are the penalties of unattractiveness and incompetence. Dweebs, feebs, stiffs, and plates of lox, awake! Your time has come!”

The “Torricelli Exception” refers to former New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli, who was forced out on corruption charges and resigned from the Democratic ticket after the deadline for doing so. (The New Jersey Supreme Court allowed Democrats to substitute Frank Lautenberg on the ballot despite the passing of the deadline for changes; Lautenberg still holds the seat today).